Getting Too Close for Comfort

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.

A photo from a protest of 10,000 orthodox Jewish men and boys in Jerusalem in 2010 that I covered.

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.

A view of the mountains from Ein Kerem, Jerusalem

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.

Police horses form an equine barrier during tensions near the Old City in Jerusalem in 2009.

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.

Photographers Can Teach Writers How to See

Journalists and photojournalists (or writers and photographers–however you want to label them) live in intersecting worlds. Although the work they do is ultimately very different, I believe they can help each other.

Palestinian boys in Deir Istiya, West Bank pose themselves for my camera. (Genevieve Long)

Good photojournalists are tenacious and often daring. They are willing to wait for hours to get the shot they need. How often do reporters do that? Photographers are also keenly aware of their surroundings, and move their way into the right space to get the photograph they need or want.

Even though I am a journalist and writer primarily, a few years ago I took up photography to at least learn the basics. The first thing I realized is that most photographers are very committed to practicing.

Gabby Kanahele in Honolulu, Hawaii. Gabby was taught by Duke Kahanamoku how to surf, among others. (Genevieve Long)

During a four-day training session I took, the photographer giving the class told us, “If it’s been one day since you’ve picked up your camera and used it, it’s been too long.” Imagine if writers–other than those who have excelled at their craft–had that mentality. There would probably be mountains more work produced by writers and journalists every day.

Boys in Granada, Nicaragua kick a plastic bottle as a toy. (Genevieve Long)

Many accomplished photographers will also tell you that they carry a camera with them everywhere they go. Ashley Gilbertson does it. Paul McDonough does it. They do it because it’s natural to them to photograph; it’s how they see the world.

The ancient, famed aqueduct remains in Caesarea, Israel. (Genevieve Long)

I love photographers because the good ones can get to the truth just by getting behind their camera and taking a picture. They think and act and move in response to the situation they are in. They look at what is in front of them and find the pictures waiting to be discovered.

Writers could learn from that. I know I have.

NYC Forum to Feature Tim Hetherington


Attend an evening with Tim Hetherington, an award-winning photojournalist and filmmaker on Tuesday, Dec. 8. He will discuss his new book, Long Story Bit By Bit: Liberia Retold, as well as his upcoming documentary about a platoon of U.S. Airborne soldiers in Afghanistan. A book signing and reception will follow the event

This is the inaugural Ground View forum, the first in a series of intriguing and informative events featuring journalists who have witnessed some of the world’s most important news firsthand.

Location: NYU Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute

20 Cooper Square, 6th Floor, New York, NY

Time: Slide show/Discussion/6:30 pm

Book signing and reception to follow

Admission: General Admission $12.00