Getting physically close to a story is not as easy as it seems. First of all, most people are not conditioned to think in terms of potential sources of information, getting close enough to take a good photo, or whipping out a video recorder to document something interesting and unique. It takes repetition and practice to get used to always keeping an eye out for the story.
To go from passive observer to engaged observer (by recording what is happening) also takes overcoming blocks that keep us in the passive category. Sometimes it is fear. Sometimes laziness. Sometimes timidity.
Fear covers all of the above. But why is it so powerful? I think the answer is that it’s not.
When I was in Ein Kerem, Israel on the last day of Sukkot (a major Jewish holiday) recently, I came across some orthodox Jewish men dancing and singing in the streets. I knew it was a good opportunity to take some photos and video–just for practice. I am very fearful of photographing people, so I try to do it as often as possible. Maybe in a year or two I won’t be as timid.
In this case, it is understandable that I was a bit fearful. The only time anyone has ever threatened to stone me was a couple of years ago when I was photographing a huge demonstration by orthodox Jewish men in Jerusalem.
But standing there in the idyllic setting of Ein Kerem, I overcame that bizarre and isolated incident and whipped out my Samsung Galaxy smartphone (basically a miniature computer) to take some photos and video.
Ein Kerem is a small village on the outskirts of Jerusalem that is a huge tourist attraction. The small scale of the dancing street worked to my advantage because there was no through traffic (actually they were blocking any through traffic). The tourists were also an advantage, because there were quite a few people standing around gawking at the men as they danced and sang with their holy book, the Torah. Sukkot is the end of the Jewish calendar year and marks the point when religious followers of Judaism start reading the Torah from the beginning after spending the year reading through it.
While I was taking the video, I knew I wasn’t close enough. I took a few small steps forward, measuring my distance against other onlookers. I was very consciously seeking strength in numbers, but why? What did I think these singing, dancing men were going to do to me if I got a bit closer? Yell at me, tell me to get lost, or pick up the nearest rock and chuck it at my head? It seems ridiculous in hindsight, but coming clean about shortcomings as a reporter post-story can be instructive if you make a brutally honest assessment. Well, it doesn’t have to be brutal, but it should be without permissive trimmings and excuses if you want to do better the next time. And there will be a next time, unless you plan on quitting.
While still mid-story, there are a few things at play when photographing or videoing people on the street. First of all, are you invading their privacy? Second of all, are you interfering with them in any way? Sometimes there are no answers to either question, but they should be asked. Rule number one in journalistic ethics: do no harm.
Sadly, when it comes to certain kinds of public gatherings, a large media presence can serve to embolden even the most timid reporter (and protester, for that matter!). Just take a look at this video of recent protests in Spain. It’s something akin to mob mentality. You can easily see what a large gathering of photographers looks like. It takes a strong journalist to break away from the pack in such a situation and work on the outskirts of the story, away from the mutually-generating vibe of protesters and journalists.
In 2009 I was in Jerusalem covering some tensions between Muslims and Jews outside the walls of the Old City. The situation was electrified, and the gaggle of reporters there didn’t help.
In that situation, I was extremely bold. Looking back, it doesn’t seem like anything that I believe I am capable of. I got in front of a row of police horses and snapped several shots. I stood alone in front of a huge pack of Muslim men and photographed them as they bent in prayer, not moving until they told me, “Uh, can you move? We don’t want to pray with a woman in front of us.” I also got very good close-up shots of people’s faces while they were yelling at each other, shots from the roof of a building, and several shots of armed border patrol and police.
That experience proves two things. It proves the controlling force I think fear has on me as a reporter actually doesn’t exist. But more importantly, it proves that I am capable of getting as close to the story as I want to.