Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist, Deanne Fitzmaurice just gave her In Focus talk this morning at Photo Week 2016 in NYC, and I can’t stop thinking about the questions that she raised.
Her body of work speaks for itself, and it demonstrates the impact that her photos have and the stories that she is able to convey in any single image. But there is a secret to how she is able to achieve this level of storytelling, and it definitely pushes the boundaries of what is typically expected of photojournalists.
Deanne engages with her subjects
“I was always taught to be an observer. Don’t engage.” She says that the code of ethics for photojournalists is to not intentionally influence the subjects of the scene. But is this possible?
Especially when witnessing tough situations, it’s really hard to be objective and turn off compassion and empathy. However that is usually the stated goals of photographers in these situations, to stand back, observe, and document moments. However, Deanne says that she “has found that when I have compassion and empathy, my stories have so much more impact. ”
These deeper questions of ethics and photojournalism apply to so much more than just that specific field. Deanne has made me realize that these are the kinds of questions that any photographer should be asking in their work, no matter what type of photography you shoot.
Back when the professional home-run king, Barry Bonds played for the San Francisco Giants, Deanne was hired to photograph him on and off the field. But this would prove to be very challenging, because Barry Bonds was notoriously averse to having his picture taken. Her initial images of him either had his hand blocking the camera, or portrayed him glared at her as she tried to capture him.
So finally, she approached him and asked (without having thought it through), “Barry, do you have a problem with me photographing you?” He paused for a moment, but then his facial expression changed, and he said, “no.”
This moment changed forever the way she approached photojournalism. The moment she engaged with him, she was able to break through this wall that he had put up. She was able to actually get real photos of him, have conversations, and tell the stories that other photos simply don’t convey.
Every time she would go to photograph him, she would talk to him first. Their small talk enabled them to build up a relationship. This was something she had never done before, because she always thought she shouldn’t. She was engaging with the subject. These moments that humanized him – enabled her to capture unpredictable pictures that really show who he is as a person.
Because she was able to break through the anonymity barrier, she was able to capture moments that told much more of a story. Not just understanding who they are, but having them them understanding who you are as a person and as a photographer. “There is a power in making a connection – it changed the way I worked, and my pictures became more intimate.”
It seems to go against conventional photojournalism wisdom, but “so much of my work is about building relationships” she says. It has opened up the doors for thinking about how we respect people, gain their trust, and tell more meaningful stories with our photographs.
If you missed her Photo Week 2016 In Focus talk, don’t worry, you can watch the entire thing for free by clicking the image below. Deanne is amazing, and her story has compelled me to think critically about how I approach my work. Check it out.