Assignment: The Other Iraq (And the other Me)
A couple months ago, I contacted one of the main newspapers in Chile, called La Tercera. It publishes a Sunday magazine that has a very unique approach to storytelling. This magazine, El Semanal, is not based on documentaries, reports, analysis or interviews, which is the norm for a publication like that in Chile. Instead, El Semanal features people telling their own stories, speaking in first person, talking about what they have experienced or what they have witnessed around certain issues, places and life in general.
From the very beginning I really liked their editorial work and approach to storytelling, because it identifies with the way I personally feel related to stories. For example, in most cases, my role is to tell the story of someone else and make it visual. At the same time, that person’s story, more often that not, begins to influence my own personal views and my experience as photographer. In most cases, I am touched, moved, or changed by either the subject’s life or the lessons hidden within their stories.
As you can see, my approach isn’t that of a photojournalist, but from someone who wants to relate and make a personal contact with his subject. I am someone who wants to get involved and be part of the story.
Back to my assignment, I talked several times with one of the editors of El Semanal, and we agreed on the story that we wanted to cover. The story was about the part of Iraq where I live, where life is so much different than what you have seen on the news. We wanted to talk about the story of progress and the economical renaissance that northern Iraq is going through, looking at the city of Erbil, the capital of the area best known as Kurdistan Iraq. The bottom line is the whole assignment produced 20 useable images and a chronicle of 8000 characters (two full Word pages).
The premise was to capture scenes that would show a different Iraq, so in the end, it was more like a travel photography assignment than a story about a specific person. Because of this, it was a totally new thing for me. I had never done a story about a place before, so I wasn’t totally sure how to approach it. I did not photograph people, except in few frames, but learned by the end of the assignment that if you are covering a story, no matter what it is, people always have to be included. Somehow people give “life” to a story and without them the story of that place is incomplete.
TIP: If you are working on an editorial shoot, always take a lot of photographs of people. You are going to need them, and those images will probably end up being picked by your editors over other images.
From the moment I started shooting this assignment, two things were on my mind: I had to shoot everything I needed within 48 hours, and I had to write as well as the images I photographed. I was nervous… here was another assignment based on my fears and doubts, wondering why in the word I had accepted entirely something new. Why didn’t I stay with what I already knew? Why not stay in my safe zone? Why?
These thoughts can play in your favor sometimes (I will explain more in another post). But more often than not, they will play against you. So you’d better shut those doubts off quickly once you start working… if not, you will miss something. In my case, I was grumpy during the whole assignment, a little bit tense, and I ended up missing some photographs that could have made this a much better visual story. Don’t bring your fears to work, please. Besides, you’ll miss enjoying the company of wonderful people during this assignment.
TIP: Whatever fear you have, use it for good. Work harder, and don’t listen to the voices of fear. They are the worse kind of advisors.
This was a very rushed assignment. As I said, I only had 48 hours total to shoot what I needed, which I don’t recommend to anybody. I was running for two days straight and because of that, I did not have those pauses that allows you to sit back and reflect on what you are actually doing. This is something crucial when you have the goal of telling a story. This time, trusting my gut worked well, but I can’t rely on that. It’s not good for my body or the story. Make sure you have those “time outs” to review what you have done and what else needs to be accomplished before finishing your work.
TIP: Build in time to think throughout your assignment. Check your lists, goals, editorial aims, and story. Confirm everything you need to bring back with you.
Now let me show you some images from this assignment. And let me tell you that my favorite photograph did not make the cut! Why? Because it was not part of the main body of the story. The editors chose images that were related to my writing. So if you want your favorite images to be part of the published story, then make sure to talk about them in your story.
During the assignment I thought that shooting from a higher place would give a better perspective, so I tried to find places with a high vantage point. The only thing at hand was a cable car – the poor man’s alternative to a helicopter. We jumped in, and I made my best shots from there. Because we couldn’t shoot through the windows, my local fixer decided that the best solution was to open the doors. I cannot tell you how terrified I was shooting with the doors open, but in the end it turned out to be a great solution.
Here are the final printed images from this article. I hope to have the time to translate it into English so that one day you can understand what I said here. So once again… the story about someone else, in the end, changed my own story. Right now I find myself loving creating photographs for magazines and writing. Perhaps this will take me on a new path in photography, but for now I can see a small shift. We’ll see if that’s enough.