Photography: Enze Dal Verme
For many photographers, creating images doesn’t get more enjoyable or important than reportage. It’s the world of the photojournalist, the jetsetting professional shooting around the world to create stories and bring back pictures of events, people and places that are rarely seen. It’s a combination of exploration, exposition and artistry that together make up a life of adventure and excitement. Whether they’re lying next to an Arctic ice hole for National Geographic or covering the demonstrations in Egypt for the New York Times, reportage allows photographers to not just take pictures but to create the stories they want to tell.
It’s very difficult to do. And it’s even harder to do profitably.
Enzo Dal Verme has been doing it for ten years. A former PR consultant, he turned to freelance journalism when he closed his agency, publishing occasional pictures to illustrate his writings. His business grew and he now divides his time between travel photography, fashion, backstage, portraiture and reportage. His images have appeared in Vanity Fair, Vogue, Elle and Glamour, among others.
Good Reportage is Inspiring
For Enzo, who has recently published a guide to help other photographers shoot reportage, a photo narrative should do more than deliver images to a viewer. It should move that viewer too.
“[It’s] very subjective,” he says. “Good reportage is inspiring. It triggers something in the viewer, perhaps challenging and unsettling his or her beliefs.”
Enzo’s own work has included a series on urban heroes around the world, people who are leading recycling projects, defending local mangrove swamps or offering medical services to the poor, but he’s also covered wealthy parties in developing countries, ayurvedic medicine and art gallery directors.
All reportage, he says, starts with an idea, a topic that he’s curious to explore and which he believes might be published in a magazine. He then starts doing the research, using social media, and ASmallWorld, an exclusive social networking site, to source contacts and advice about the locations.
Once Enzo reaches the destination, the clock is ticking and he has to work quickly, filling his schedule to ensure that the shoot pays. He organizes his images each day, placing them in a “first choice folder” and a “reserve folder” that allows him to track the development of the shoot while he’s still on location. Finally, he has to deal with post-production, a period that can be long if he’s to develop the images at the quality his clients demand. It’s a hard job, he says, but one that’s extremely rewarding.
Be Prepared to Fall into a Swimming Pool with Your Camera
Surprises on shoots are also common, not always welcome, and can range from fixing a broken camera to dealing with strikes, assaults and floods. Enzo has fallen into a swimming pool, camera in hand, while shooting a story about interior design in Bali, seen his laptop spill from his bag onto a marble floor in China, and had an editor change entirely the subject of the shoot two days before he was due to leave for India (he was able to complete and sell both projects).
“When you are used to last minute changes and unforeseen events,” he explains in his book, “problems can turn into opportunities.”
The difficulty of coping with contacts, tight schedules and equipment failure in distant locations are nothing though compared to the real challenge of reportage photography: making it pay.
According to Enzo, there are two ways to turn an idea for a reportage story into a payment. The first is to contact an editor you know and pitch the idea. Even if the editor doesn’t accept it as is, her feedback can help you to find a marketable angle. For experienced professionals, the kind of people who have a body of work large enough to build trust, overheads to meet, and contacts strong enough to get editors on the phone, this is the usual route. Beginners and enthusiasts though are more likely to have to shoot the story first then try to sell it when they get back.
For both kinds of photographers though, making the sale is hard — and getting harder.
“Magazine and newspaper budgets keep shrinking [and] the crisis started a trend that is giving photographers a very hard time,” Enzo pointed out in an email interview. “If someone is really passionate about a certain story, I believe it’s a good idea to go ahead and shoot it.[But] my suggestion is: keep in mind that you may well be about to invest money that you will never see come back.”
That’s not encouraging news but it’s also not news that’s going to surprise anyone. Photojournalism is not about to become less competitive and the decline in the readership of newspapers and magazines — the kind of publications that have the budgets to pay for photographers to fly around the world and tell their stories — may be slowing, but there’s little sign that it’s reversing. Even the iPad doesn’t look like it’s going to save the day.
There are a few things that a photographer can do to increase the chances of making his or her money back, says Enzo: look for unexploited topics; cultivate connections with buyers; be passionate about the subject; and, of course, deliver excellent quality work. Flexibility helps too, both to cope with the surprises the shoot will throw up and to adjust ideas to the needs of the market.
But perhaps the most important advice though is not to depend on reportage as your only source of income. Even Enzo’s business has multiple channels and what he shoots from one week to the next will depend as much on the needs of his clients as the inspiring idea that strikes him next.
If flexibility and an eye for an opportunity are essential for coping with the rigors of a reportage shoot, they’re no less important for developing a career as a reportage photographer.