Join Ben Long for an in-depth discussion in this video Getting access to photographic subjects, part of The Practicing Photographer.
- This week on The Practicing Photographer I have Paul Taggart here on my left. You might have seen Paul here in the library uh, let's see, shooting giraffes, shooting a sculpture, shooting a circus. You've seen Paul in these very strange locations. Paul, that's normal for you, you're a photojournalist. How do you get access to all this kind of stuff? - Um, it's a good question. (chuckles) Usually it's just, it starts with coming up with an idea of what you want to photograph. Sometimes somebody calls you and says, "Hey, go photograph this." but often times, it just comes from inside, "Hey, these are things that I'm interested in." And then from there, I decide how I'm gonna access that.
For instance, with the circus, it was just a matter of picking up a phone call and dropping a couple of emails. And I also had the help of a producer that was working with me as well and she made a lot of those phone calls as well so often times it's a collaboration. It's not unusual for me to do all the legwork and logistics myself and then sometimes I also do work with an agent or an editor or a writer and they help me with access. But, access is essential and if there's one thing I could teach other photographers or storytellers in any medium is do your research and find out how to get your own access 'cause that's what's gonna make a good story or not.
- And so what it your research? So you want to shoot some giraffes. - Mmm-hmm. - Where do you start in your thought process of, "I gotta figure out how to get me some giraffes." - With something like that, I actually start really simple and try to imagine what kind of photograph I want and so okay, if I want to photograph giraffe, I'm thinking, "Okay, well that's easy." There's plenty of giraffes photos in the world. What's in the background of that? What does it look like? Is this in Africa or maybe because of budgetary restraints or something, this is a project just taking place in America. Is it in a zoo? Am I trying to say something about animals in captivity? Or, you know, all these things matter and also geographically, do I want the background to be more of a desert scheme? Then, let's shoot that in California.
Or maybe we're gonna do a preserve someplace in the middle of the country where it's green. I'm always thinking what's the actual photograph gonna be. Is it a giraffe by itself? Is it a giraffe with five other giraffes? And I say all this because that's gonna determine where I'm gonna look and from there, you can get online and start trying to find zoos or preserves or whatever it is you're looking for. I would say by the time I find an actual subject that I'm gonna get on a plane or get in my car and go photograph, I probably made a couple hundred phone calls.
- Wow. - Or a couple hundred emails just whittling it down based on geography, the finance of what I have to work with for the project, et cetera. - Have you ever been stumped? Not able to get access? - Yes and no. (both laugh) Yes, there's been places I've wanted to photograph and I've been told no but I'm really stubborn (Ben laughs) in all aspects of life but especially this. And so if one person tells me no, for instance, I actually did a lot of work in prisons years ago and I heard a lot of people tell me no.
No, you can't have access to this because of all these reasons and then I would exhaust my avenue with that one prison and if I couldn't find a legal way that I could get in then I would scratch it off the list and go okay, I'm gonna move on to the next prison on my list. So there's always a backup. There's always a way to, or almost always a way to try to get the photograph you want or the story you want. You do have to compromise sometimes on location, subject matter, and say, okay no, in Iowa they're not gonna let me inside their prison system but in Alabama they will.
- Right. I feel like sometimes the mistake people make is they, this thing they're trying to get access to is really valuable to them and so it's precious to them and so they're afraid of talking to someone about it but, for someone who has a preserve full of giraffes, they might actually want people there photographing or they may be somewhat indifferent but not actually, you call them up and they go, "Yeah, whatever." - More often than not, if you're very open about what it is your photographing and why you want to photograph it, people do open doors to you. That said, that feeling when you're making those first cold phone calls on a project, to this day, I get really nervous.
- Really? - In my back of my mind, I'm going through every single reason why that person is gonna tell me no before I actually pick up the phone and call them. And 15 years later or whatever, I still haven't gotten over that. So it is a scary place to be calling up people that you don't know and asking them to allow you into their lives. And it's, I think, one thing I can say is, it's a gradual process of letting them get to know you and sort of slowly ask for as much access as you want. - Do you find this true on every project? Or are there times when you can feel like, "Nah, I can get it all if I just ask"? - I'm al-- - You're always building rapport? - You're always building up the relationship but I am, I try to be as upfront with what I want because like I said, there's a list of other places I can call for the same thing usually.
I wanna know now if this is gonna work. I don't wanna wait two weeks and beat around the bush and then find out that it's you know, you're not gonna get the access. - [Ben] Right. So some things that you get access to as a photojournalist are pretty far removed from something as simple as finding a giraffe in North America. Other countries, remote locations, possibly in conflict, where do you start with those? - Umm. - Same process? (laughs) - Same process. In some ways it's easier because once you get out of a highly populated area like the United States, there's less places to look.
So I always talk about the Congo 'cause it's an easy project to discuss but you know if we're talking about animals and I want to go and do a project on mountain rangers that were protecting gorillas in Congo, you know, there weren't a lot of places to call. (laughs) - Right. - They only live in a couple places and there's only a couple people that actually know where they are and have access to them and so obviously, that's where you go. You go to a certain region of Congo to do that but finding out who to call and building a relationship with them to allow me to go out there and do that, that takes a little bit longer.
And some of that's just going there and talking in person (laughs). - Which brings up another point. Sometimes access, getting access, is not just about getting permission. It's that you're trying to get access to places that are difficult to travel into. So when you say, "I just go to the Congo," you just call up Congo Air and book a flight? (laughs) Or you got something more complicated than at to do. - It's one of the things that I like the most about this job is figuring out those problems and so I love picking up a map and going, "Okay, I can't fly into this country because there's a war going on," or the border's closed or whatever, and then finding out what's the next best place I can go.
And often times, let's say, the country that you want to go to is in the middle of a conflict or for some other, or natural disaster you can't get there. You know, finding a place to fly into that has the resources you need to make your project is important. So, what's the nearest town that has an open road that I can rent a car in, that I can find a translator that speaks the language on the other side of the border and get all of your resources in one car and then head out, you know? So it's a bit of a game. I actually like figuring out that puzzle. - How do you go about assessing risk? When you're going into an area like that? (laughs) Uh, I'm still learning that.
- Really? (both laugh) - I'm definitely like, a lot more, I think I'm a lot more cautious than a lot of other people that do this just 'cause I kinda do go over everything in my head beforehand 'cause I do get worried and now I've got three kids and a wife and so - [Ben] Stakes are higher. - (laughs) those concerns weigh much heavier on me and I don't do a lot of the same stories that I did but I would still travel to a lot of these kind of places to do different types of stories. Maybe not conflict and it's just a risk verse reward in my mind. How much do I want this? How much is this worth to me? How much is this story worth and then you figure it out.
But there's usually, you know, educating yourself about what the situation on the ground is, takes away a lot of that fear. If you know what the problems are, what's dangerous then you can mitigate it. - It's also possible to get help on the ground. You mentioned translators, drivers, there are fixers. You can try to find people that know the area, know how to get you what you want, and who have possibly worked already with a photographer. How do you find those people? Well, that goes hand in hand with talking about safety because often times if you go into the country and you try to hire a fixer or translator, that could be the person that's the most dangerous person to you because they're still a stranger so I like to find those people by calling up other journalists, other photographers, NGOs in the area and saying, "Hey, I'm coming here in a month or a couple of weeks.
"Can you put me in contact with any fixers that you know." I think having a recommendation for those people is definitely the best and that's one of those things just over the years of traveling and working different locations, you know the people to call for that. That said, it can't always happen that way. I've flown into a number of natural disasters where there's no resources on the ground yet, there's nobody really to call. The phone lines are out, it's a mess. At that point, I have on more than one occasion, flown into a really horrible place, gotten off the airplane with nothing but a camera bag and then walked up to the most honest looking person I could find and said, "I need a car.
and said, "I need a car. "How many languages do you speak?" And we went from there. - Wow. - So, it happens both ways. (laughs) - In general, do you find that most people, your odds of meeting someone trustworthy and helpful are better than your odds of meeting someone who's gonna rip you off? - Yes. Yeah, but still be - very cautious. - [Bob] Of course. Yeah, yeah. - Yeah, people by their nature, I think, are good. And if you put that out there, hopefully it kinda comes back to you. How do you know what to pay somebody for that kind of service? How do you know if you're getting ripped off? - I've always tended to overpay, which also isn't good because on the first day, whatever you're paying that person, if you're overpaying them, you might be stuck in that country working on that story for months or even over a year sometimes and then you're stuck into this pay model (laughs) 'cause you can't pay somebody less.
'cause you can't pay somebody less. But yeah, I would always say pay a little bit more, mmm, that's a tough question and it's definitely specific. In some places if you're gonna pay a little bit more, they might make yourself into a target so again, if you have other people, friends, colleagues, on the ground that you can ask these questions, "How much do you pay so-and-so to use as a driver?" and then you do the same. - So it really sounds like persistence is the main quality that gets you access to something. - Being stubborn.
- Yeah, being stubborn and just figuring it out. - [Paul] Yup. - Yeah. All right, Paul, thanks for giving me access to you. This was really interesting. If you'd like to know more about how Paul works and learn some of his tricks, he's got a number of excellent courses here in the library.
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