August 5th, 2013

How to Find Photo Projects in Your Own Backyard

Finding a good photo project is always a challenge, but the staff of The Herald in Jasper, Indiana, a town of about 15,000 people, has been coming up with a photo essay every week for the past 35 years. What’s more, photographers at The Herald have won a number of major photo prizes for their work over the years.

David Weatherwax, chief photographer of The Herald, has won Photojournalist of the Year  (in the small market category) in the NPPA Best of Photojournalism competition for the past two years. He recently explained in a PDN interview how he and his colleagues come up with so many story ideas in their own backyard.

At The Herald, they rely plenty on the personal contacts they accumulate in their day-to-day work as newspaper journalists. Photographer Carrie Niland, who has worked as a photo editor at The Seattle Times, AOL, and The Post-Standard in Syracuse, says the key to finding good local stories it so start a lot of conversations, asking people to tell you about the most interesting people they know.

She and photograph John Berry came up with more than 40 local story ideas for the 2013 NPPA Multimedia Workshop in Syracuse this past spring.  Niland found stories at a cemetery, a karaoke bar, a bowling alley, and a farm, to name just a few places. She searched by calling people she knew, but she also got in her car and just drove around. For instance, she scouted a working class neighborhood where she knew there were a lot of family-run businesses. When she spotted one that looked interesting, she walked in, introduced herself to the boss, explained what she was looking for, and started following every lead she got.

“The biggest advice I could give is to go to someplace outside your comfort zone”–for Niland it was the karaoke bar–”start talking to people, and really listen to what they have to say,” she says. “See what makes them tick, and what interests them, and what they find interesting.”

Niland kept her ear tuned for personal struggle, which can make compelling documentary stories. “Everyone has something they’re trying to overcome or work towards. it’s just talking to people to find out what that is, without directly asking them,” she says. Instead, she asked them about their work, their pastimes, their routines–and why they did those things.

“I think the most important thing is to be open to every story I could possibly find. I didn’t shut down what anyone had to say,” she explains. “If someone said, hey, I have this friend who’s really interesting, and she picks up dog poop for a living–that actually happened. There’s a person who goes around and picks up dog poop from people’s yards. I didn’t know people did that for a living.

“I investigated that. I was trying to be open to everything I heard and follow up on it.”

Alas, nobody at the workshop produced a story about the pooper scooper. The point, though, is that just talking to enough can lead you to surprising stories everywhere.

Of course, there are some useful resources online for finding story leads. Gregg McLachlan, formerly Associate Managing Editor of the Simcoe Reformer, Ontario, Canada, published a list called “50 Places to Shop for Story Ideas” several years ago. Although the list is several years old, it suggests all kinds of places and resources to peruse for story ideas hiding in plain sight.

Transom.org, a showcase and resource for independent radio producers, solicited suggestions from its readers about how to find stories in places where you don’t live. But the suggestions are just as applicable to finding good photo stories in your own neighborhood.

Happy hunting, and if you have other ideas for digging up good documentary stories near home, please add them to our comments section below.

Related: David Weatherwax’s Approach to Small Town Journalism