8 Documentary Photography Tips From a National Geographic Photojournalist

Are you currently working as a photojournalist or do you aspire to be one? Does the thought of traveling the world and telling the stories of the humans and animals that you encounter along the way exhilarate and inspire you? If your answer is “yes,” “absolutely,” “huzzah,” or anything in between, you’re definitely going to want to watch the following video.

As part of their “Prospectives” project, B&H interviewed National Geographic documentary photographer Amy Vitale about the principles that guide her work as a photojournalist:

Throughout the film, Vitale encourages aspiring photojournalists to adopt the following 8 principles and incorporate them into their workflow to maximize their creative potential and empathy in the field, as well as the potency and reach of their photography.

1. Do Your Research

Once you receive an assignment or decide to pursue a personal project, you should begin by learning as much as you possibly can about your subjects’ culture. Thorough research will minimize stress and help you to build relationships with your subjects and respect in their communities much more quickly. Vitale consults online newspapers, local journalists and residents, and personal and professional connections before traveling to any particular locale.

“Cultural sensitivities are very important,” said Vitale. “Even just your appearance can be really important, so I definitely pay attention to those sensitivities and try to dress modestly, for example. Or, if a headscarf is important, I have that.”

2. Focus on What Unites, Not on What Divides

amy vitale documentary photography

From Vitale’s viewpoint, one of the biggest mistakes made by aspiring storytellers who travel out of their own communities, states, and even countries to pursue photography projects is getting caught up in comparisons between cultures. Yes, everything might feel different—cultural customs and norms, religion, food, etc.—but instead of focusing on those differences, turn your attention to noticing similarities between yourself and your subjects.

“Focus on what unites and binds us rather than ‘the exotic,'” said Vitale. “Ultimately, that’s what [will allow] other people to relate to the story and have an interest in it.”

3. Put Yourself in Your Subject’s Shoes

Many of the similarities that you begin to notice will be emotional in nature, which means you’ll need empathy to fully appreciate them. Once you become practiced at empathizing with your subjects, you will be able to anticipate candid, beautiful moments that might be worth photographing.

“Empathy is key,” said Vitale. “Without it, I don’t know what it’s about. You’ve got to try to be able to put yourself in the shoes of other people and feel what they might be going through, to really get some kind of truth.”

4. Don’t Be Afraid of People

portrait photography montana india horses cowboys

However, you won’t be able to empathize with your subjects if you’re afraid to trust them. In fact, fearing strangers and foreign cultures may even hinder you from traveling in the first place.

“Imagination can be dangerous, but when you get on the ground and connect with people, 99% of the time… people all over the world are wonderful,” said Vitale. “The more I travel, the more I learn, and the more I realize how little I know, and that’s a really beautiful thing.”

5. Practice Your Approach

Routinely putting yourself out there and asking people if you can photograph them will not only increase your confidence around new people and places, but it will also hone your communication skills and your manner.

“It can feel really icky sometimes, like you’re invading people’s space… [but] a lot of that feeling, you’re projecting onto other people,” said Vitale, “It’s all in your approach. We’re all born into different bodies, [but] even if you’re a big burly guy, if you approach people in a gentle way, you’ll be surprised… being too aggressive and coming on too strongly in the beginning will terrify any animal and any person too.”

6. Slow Down

woman water amy vitale africa

In today’s fast-paced world, it can sometimes be difficult to find fifteen minutes to take a walk, let alone dedicate months or even years to a personal photography project, but to Vitale, slowing down and taking one’s time is absolutely critical for the life of the story. If your photographs tell the story from your perspective, they won’t have nearly the same impact as if you give people time to open up and invite you into their lives.

“You start understanding that getting depth is all about patience,” said Vitale. “It’s really their story and what’s important to them, and that just takes time… don’t always be on the hunt looking for your picture. You need to slow down mentally and find the key moments, because if you always have that camera up against your face, you miss so much.”

7. Respect Your Subjects

It’s also important to treat every subject — even those in remote areas who will never get access to a computer — with the utmost respect and consideration. Let them know that if they do agree to be photographed, you’ll share their image on the Internet, and make certain that you devise some means of getting them a print of their photograph as a thank you.

“Don’t just assume that because you’re in a remote place that they’ll never see [their photo],” said Vitale. “These are real people… it’s a huge responsibility to do justice to the stories we’re telling and the people we’re talking about.”

8. Protect Your Photos and the Stories They Represent

africa baby newborn amy vitale

Vitale also encourages documentary photographers to fiercely protect their images from copyright violations using Google Reverse Image Search and other similar software. Why bother? Because your subjects’ stories deserve reverence and respect.

Because in the end, Vitale believes that’s what photojournalism is all about—powerfully connecting with other human beings and honoring that trust by doing justice, both through imagery and through empathetic and considerate professional conduct.

“I get to travel the world… to tell really powerful stories that, hopefully, will make a difference,” said Vitale. “For me, photography has become this incredible tool to creating awareness and, hopefully, understanding, and that’s why I do it.”

Like This Article?

Don't Miss The Next One!

Join over 100,000 photographers of all experience levels who receive our free photography tips and articles to stay current:

One response to “8 Documentary Photography Tips From a National Geographic Photojournalist”

  1. Tiberman Sajiwan Ramyead says:

    Amy’s shots – Highly expressive; about her empathy – by God, she is a man!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

New! Want more photography tips? We now offer a free newsletter for photographers:

No, my photos are the best, close this forever