In March of 2019, I spent two weeks in Rwanda photographing the work of an NGO called Talking Through Art. For the most part, my entire trip to Rwanda went off without a hitch. There were no issues with travel, gear, safety, the people I was working with, or anything in between. For which I am very grateful. But, like I’ve mentioned in a previous post, it was my first documentary assignment abroad so it did bring up challenges from the photographic side. I’m sharing those with you below in the event they may help you in a similar situation. Or perhaps you may have some of your own suggestions?
Photographing a vulnerable population
Heading into this trip, I was well aware that I would be photographing people living with a disability. I was also well aware that photographing vulnerable populations has ethical considerations. In my mind, then, I kept returning to the question of how I would document the work of an NGO that assists a vulnerable population while preserving individual dignity?
I believe this is where my experience as a physiotherapist came in handy. Having previously worked with people living with a disability, I recognized and focused on their similarities with the non-disabled rather than their differences. This meant that though I needed images showing their disability, the focus of the image would be more on their interaction with the environment rather than on the disability itself.
Granted, this challenge is best overcome with preparation (and experience). If you find yourself looking ahead to assignment where you’ll be working with a vulnerable population, take it as the responsibility that it is and make time to prepare ahead of time. Consider researching photographers who regularly work with this population, and perhaps even reach out to them for advice. I actually reached out to Maayan Ziv, a photographer who has a disability herself, who gave me some good insight to work with.
Communicating with your photography subjects
Another challenge was communicating with my subjects in the presence of a language barrier. Though there was a staff member often present who acted as a translator, and some of the women could also speak a little bit of English, there were still moments where communication was jumbled and messages were lost in translation. This became tricky when it came to gaining consent for photographs. At times I could only hope that my intentions were translated properly and the subjects knew why their photo was being taken. It was a game of trust in a way.
The best way to lighten this challenge is to learn a few words in the local language. This tends to show your appreciation for the local culture. Taking the time at the beginning of your trip to ensure that your host(s) understand the purpose of your work is also important as the better they understand, the better they will communicate this to the subjects you’re documenting.
If you have the luxury of being in the presence of your subjects for multiple days, you may find that you become adept at reading their body language. This information can guide you as to whether to continue photographing or to give them some space. However...be cautious that you are not misreading body language as its meaning can vary from culture to culture. Your host(s) may be able to provide clarity on this.
The first challenge that kept creeping up on me was staying creative with the shots I was making. I wasn’t surprised that this challenge came up. In fact, I was expecting it to, but it’s not until I was in the moment that I appreciated it. I had a lot of time in between visits to rural villages and markets, allowing me many opportunities to photograph my subjects performing their work. I found I had to keep trying to find different ways to photograph them in order to not end up with hundreds of the same photos.
So what did I do to overcome this challenge? Anticipating this challenge before my trip, I reached out to a fellow photographer who had already completed a similar assignment. She was very helpful with her tips, suggesting to look both at finer details and the bigger picture and vice versa.
I also played with different angles and depths of focus. I shot single subjects and groups, incorporating group interactions as well as subjects working independently within a group. I took time to review my photos daily to check on the diversity of my images. I definitely reached a plateau at some point though. I would have loved to see how another photographer would have dealt with this challenge in this setting. (suggestions are most welcome in the comments)
Being curious but not intrusive
Along similar lines with the communication challenge was learning how not to be intrusive with my camera. Though the people I was photographing generally knew why I was there, there were a few moments where I wasn’t sure if my camera was welcome. They were few and far between but nevertheless there. This is where one has to reach a balance between time spent with and without the camera, show their human side, and work on developing a good level of comfort their subjects.
An understanding of the culture, which comes with being present and with time spent on location, can also help in your approach with the camera and with knowing when to back off. Reading about the culture from different sources, as well as asking questions of your hosts can shed more light on this and help you in feeling less intrusive.
Being mindful of the type of energy you’re giving off may also be helpful in these instances. A more intrusive, in-your-face nature may not be as welcome as a curious yet calm approach.
Photographing in low light and tight spaces
On the more technical side, I found myself challenged photographing a yoga class indoors with poor light conditions and limited space to move around. The class took place in a circle format which is an unfamiliar set-up for me, adding to the challenge. I had prepared for the class to take place outside not realizing that the high temperature and lack of shade would force the class indoors. All I could do was work with the light as best as possible, and shoot from as many different angles, heights and corners of the room as I could. I was climbing on tables and couches, shooting from the floor, and squeezing into corners - I got my own workout in the process!
Focusing on smaller groups within the class was another strategy I worked with as it was very difficult to capture the entire group in one shot. The class was long enough that I could try different things, resulting in enough photos to work with.
Have you experienced any of these challenges while doing documentary photography? Share your tips below.
All images shot on assignment for Photographers Without Borders.
Thinking about volunteering abroad? Check in with this post first:
Read an excerpt of another recent volunteer trip of mine: