Getting started in Humanitarian Photography

Humanitarian - "having concern for or helping to improve the welfare and happiness of people". So humanitarian photography is generally considered to be images of the work being carried out by humanitarian organisations. But I also like a term I found on a blog called The Journal of Humanitarian Assistance: "Selling The Distant Other".

Perhaps it feels harsh to include the term 'selling' in the definition, but the need for the images isn't purely for communication. It's often to promote the work of the organisation, to persuade us of it's importance, and of the need to respond whether financially or otherwise. Helping us to see the unseen, to recognise the 'others' as a little less distant and a little more real.

There used to be a good blog post on the Visual Peacemakers website by David DuChemin about starting out in humanitarian photography. But that seems to have disappeared now, which is a shame. I thought it would be useful to share a few thoughts from my own first experience while it's fresh in my memory. I can't claim years of experience in humanitarian photography specifically, but I have been involved with various NGOs for many years, including working with the homeless in London and Bristol, and as a trustee with anti-human-trafficking NGO Unseen(UK).

In Guatemala I wasn't initially sure how difficult it would be to balance the roles of team member and photographer. The team was there to build a new home for a family, alongside and under the guidance of Potter's House. I wanted to photograph as much as possible, but not be entirely separate and 'on the outside' as an observer. Starting out as an integral part of the team made it easier to stay that way and be able to stay involved in all activities, mostly to photograph but helping out where needed too.

We already knew before arriving that there would be some key restrictions. It's illegal to film or photograph at the city dump itself, and even sites with a view over the dump are now restricted. Throughout the week I met with more members of Potter's House and that helped to clarify their media work and what would be most useful to them.

Balancing photography and videography was entirely possible, but not ideal. My priority was to photograph, so the video was limited to interviews, some brief b-roll and sharing a GoPro with various team members through the week to record the activity as they work. I was also using the same camera for both whereas in hindsight it would have been better to use my back-up camera for video thus having it set-up ready for use and also recording video onto a different set of memory cards.

Security concerns meant that it wasn't easy to carry a large amount of kit. I wanted to be able to sit in the dirt and chat with kids and families, so didn't want a large backpack with me all the time. Leaving some gear lying around would have been too risky. So I carefully planned when I would use what gear, especially the tripod, and often only had a single camera body and lens with me.

In terms of gear, I should have taken a laptop with me. It sounds obvious but I didn't think I'd have much time to edit images during the trip so I only took an iPad. Which was ok, and I could transfer select images and edit them. We did have a reasonable wifi signal each evening. But I could only work on the JPEGs and I knew I'd want to repeat and improve the edits back on my Mac and in Lightroom.

I should have also taken more batteries and memory cards. In both cases it was shooting video too that made the difference. Batteries would have been fine had I not left one of them in a charger on the last day, and didn't realize until I needed it. A rookie mistake, and I'll have an additional spare next time.

It was a rewarding experience to be able to photograph the work of such a dedicated and effective organisation. It was emotional at times, meeting families struggling through incredibly difficult situations. I don't think I'll ever be, or want to be, the photographer who will photograph everything regardless of the impact. I've tried to genuinely reflect the work and the surroundings without staging any of the images. I tried to respect the lives and feelings of those that we met, and sometimes it helps to engage without a camera, at least at first. I hope I achieved that, and that the images reflect the warmth and beauty of a great community of people that just happen to have a lot less than most.

A few 'behind the scenes' shots (thanks Carlos and Marelyn!):

Being photographed, Guatemala City, March 2016

Being photographed, Guatemala City, March 2016

Ready for interviews, on a rooftop in Guatemala City

Ready for interviews, on a rooftop in Guatemala City

Guatemala City, March 2016

Guatemala City, March 2016

You can see more images from the trip here.