When I first started out as a feature writer, I often took my own photographs. It earned me extra money, but I hated heaving around all the gear and found it tough to concentrate on reporting the story. I got good enough to realize how bad I was, and how long and hard even a truly talented photographer must toil to produce remarkable work.
Now that I’ve painstakingly sucker-cupped my way further up the media skyscraper, I almost always work with photographers. Some are assigned to a story I’ve already pitched, but usually we will conceive, pitch, do, and sell the story as a team.
Professional photojournalists are going through tough times right now, and I’ve been fortunate to work with some of the best. Along the way, I’ve learned the many rules that writers must observe when working with photographers. Here are just two:
Rule #17. Never, ever introduce them to interviewees as “my photographer.” This is like saying “This is my toothbrush” or “It won’t bite.” The photographer is neither goods nor chattel. On the rare occasions I’ve been assigned a photographer I don’t like, I’ve been tempted to try the variation, “This is the photographer of my idea,” or even the succinct but withering, “This is a photographer.” Weirdly—because I’m sure I deserve it—no photographer has ever introduced me as “my writer.”
Rule #2. Always try to stay out of their frame. (And not only stay out, but—with an increasing number of stills photographers now shooting video—shut up, too.) This rule is especially important if you are white, shaven-headed and halfway up an erupting volcano in Indonesia. I did a story for National Geographic magazine with photographer John Stanmeyer which involved covering a mystical Javanese ritual held to appease the ogre thought to live at the peak of Mt Merapi, one of the world’s most active volcanoes. It was a rare event and I was anxious to stay out of John’s way. I invite you to click on his photo above to enlarge it, and play “Where’s The Wally?”