Oslo Photo Festival: On Photojournalism and Survival
The 5th annual Oslo Photo Festival, which took place from March 16 to 20 in Norway’s capital, hosted talks by photojournalists and documentary photographers Carolyn Drake, Stephanie Sinclair, Pieter Ten Hoopen, Thomas Lekfeldt, Andrea Star Reese, Justyna Mielnikiewicz and Eugene Richards. Speakers offered insights into how they win the trust of subjects, what it takes to develop a strong personal project, and advice on surviving under difficult conditions and in an increasingly demanding profession.
Many photographers and photo students who attended sought advice on what it takes to be a successful photojournalist. Others, like festival attendee Chris Harrison, came to meet colleagues from the Norwegian photo community. “We all live in our own little worlds most of the time so it’s good to get out socially and chew the fat,” Harrison said. “All in all it’s kind of like getting a vitamin shot—going to these things you realize you aren’t alone and in some ways you’re quite privileged and its good to be reminded how fantastic photography is.”
Here are notes from some of the Festival’s presentations.
Pieter Ten Hoopen, On Digging Into Stories Deeply
Photographer Pieter Ten Hoopen, winner of World Press Photo, POYi and other awards, mesmerized the audience with his dynamic and haunting images from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Syria and the US state of Montana. He noted that the best piece of advice he ever received was, “Dig where you are standing. Dedicating time in one place with your subjects helps to gain their trust.”
For example, in 2005 Ten Hoopen received an assignment from a newspaper in Stockholm to cover the earthquake in Pakistan. He recalled intense moments he had with people who were searching for relatives in the rubble and then days later, he would see them again while walking through the same area, this time: burying their family members. Had he not stayed in one location for a long time, he said, he wouldn’t have been able to capture close-up images of these people in the landscape. In 2007, Ten Hoopen set out on assignment to find the healing waters of Ktiezh in Russia. Frustrated when he was unable to find the actual lake, he decided to make photographs of the people in front of him. In one small town, he channeled his frustration and took moody, atmospheric images of the people he approached. After shooting this work he disregarded it and put it away. He says it wasn’t until his agency, Agence Vu, asked for them that he realized a very strong project had emerged out of this experience. (To see a gallery of Ten Hoppen’s work visit PDN’s Photo of the Day here.)
Andrea Star Reese and Stephanie Sinclair: On Winning Subjects’ Trust
A recurring theme in other seminars presented during the festival was on how to gain your subject’s trust. Andrea Star Reese’s three-year-long Urban Cave project is comprised of environmental portraits of the homeless people living in New York City’s underground tunnels. After regularly showing up in the tunnels with her camera and gaining her subjects’ trust over time, Star Reese was eventually able to convey the intimacy and struggle in her subjects’ daily lives. Throughout the duration of this project she protected herself by carrying two phones and checking in with friends (before entering the tunnels), and she says, “my subjects warned me to stay away from certain people.”
Stephanie Sinclair showed intense images from a variety of projects including her coverage of Lebanon and her documentary studies of child marriages, polygamy, and female circumcision. Sinclair emphasized the importance of “showing lack of judgment while photographing in order to show the experience as it really is.” She also said she has learned how it is important to convince subjects that she’s not shooting to criticize them.
Sinclair has managed to shoot photos that raise awareness on a variety of issues. She works with NGOs and advocacy organizations working on children’s rights and also applied for and received grants to support her projects. Her grant from the Fifty Crows foundation, for example, went toward working on the child brides project in South Asia, Latin America, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, and the United States.
Panel: Keeping Photojournalists Safe
In a discussion about the safety of photojournalists, panelist Aidan White, General Secretary of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) since 1987, highlighted the significance of a journalist’s role in delivering meaningful news. Photojournalists face many challenges when covering conflict, natural disasters and when scrutinizing the exercise of power. White argued that it is the responsibility of governments and the media to ensure the safety of journalists, monitor attacks, and set up funds for families of journalists who are injured. IFJ advocates promoting these practices in countries around the world. He also noted that most governments have signed onto the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in order to protect their country’s journalists.
Speaking on the panel, photojournalist Harald Henden advised photographers on steps to take to cover an area of conflict:
- Get training, specifically first aid training focused on war injuries
- Research information about where you’re going
- Get advice from veterans
- Examine all details; for example before driving into a conflict area, ask someone if the streets are narrow.
-Work with trustworthy local people in the location you’re going to
- Always travel with others, never alone
- Be aware what fighting is going on in a small geographical area
- Have a plan B on how to get out of a danger zone
- Do your own risk assessment, and remember that a soldier’s assessment level is different from a journalist’s.
Henden went on to admit that occasionally he experiences nightmares. He said working as a photojournalist requires dealing with fear, and taking steps such as going for trauma assessment and counseling. The panelists noted that organizations like IFJ and International News Safety Institute (INSI) have the necessary resources to offer this kind of help.
Ten Hoppen noted that his agency circulates his work to clients around the world, but he also pushes himself, experimenting with formats, cameras and genres of storytelling. For example, he continues to work on several personal projects, turning some of them into exhibitions. After an injury forced him to remain in Stockholm for a while, he turned his lens on the city making intimate portraits of strangers and the people closest to him. Swedish book publisher Nygren & Nygren then published the work. This spring, he plans to film in Hungry Horse, Montana where he’s been photographing the townspeople for the last nine years.