octubre 27, 2011

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.


Cedric 20:05 octubre 27, 2011 Responder
Great job Heber! I agree with the bit on time. I recently had to do an assignment too and only had to work 24 hours to shoot and gather info for the article. I was totally unprepared on top of that. It was hell to say the least. But your work shows you're capable of doing an even more fantastic job if you had more time to shoot. :) Kudos to you!
    Heber Vega 21:00 octubre 27, 2011 Responder
    Hi Cedric, Thanks for your words. Yeah, with the economy these days, specially in the editorial field, I think we have to get used to the idea of working  on the run. Not the ideal but one of the only ways to make this jobs possible. I think also that by getting experience, we will probably get better at preparing ourselves for an assignments like this.  Thanks again.
Erin Wilson 23:01 octubre 27, 2011 Responder
The aerial images are fantastic, Heber.  Congrats for landing this assignment.  Must feel great to see you work in print in something with such large circulation.
    Heber Vega 16:31 octubre 28, 2011 Responder
    Hi Erin. Yeah, it feels good although challenged as well, by the things I learned at this gig. Somehow I want to give it another shot and do things differently. Anyway that will be for next time!

Related Posts
Sulaymaniyah International Theatre Festival
Last week, we had the opportunity to enjoy an international theatre festival, where groups from different European countries performed in locations throughout the city of Sulaymaniyah. It was a first for Iraq. One of the festival sponsors hired me to cover some of the performances, which was a new challenge for me. I haven’t done much work with events, and my only previous experience photographing events was my sister’s wedding (2009) and a Preemptive Love campaign (2010). The brief from my clients was: to capture as much of the performances as I could during the assigned hours, and to produce pictures to be used for archiving purposes ...
Product shooting – Los Búhos
One of the surprises I found this time when I returned to Chile was that one of my dear friends is now crafting and brewing beer. He’s started his own company, established a lab, and has just begun the production of a beer called “Los Búhos” (which means The Owls in Spanish). It’s exquisite, to say the least. More than just a beer with great flavour, this beer has a lot of dedication, passion and craft behind it. I think that was the main reason why I was inspired to create this shoot. My friend has invested a lot of time in developing a method through studying the old traditions of crafting and brewing beer, and not relying on more “modern” ...
The Operating Room
While I was going through the images I have shot during the last 2 years, I found a peculiar set of images that drew my attention. I don't know why I didn't take notice before, but I've decided to publish them under one of the portfolios that I'm currently building up, based on portraiture. I think that this set of photographs is very interesting in the sense that I'm sharing a very intimate and important moment with each person pictured here. These are the kind of profoundly personal moments when you don't want to be interrupted, and you don't want to be distracted, but for some reason that eludes me today, we all agreed to make it happen. ...