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31 March 2017Last updated
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Features | The big story

How to make every picture tell a story

Four photographers share their views on the craft and offer tips to enthusiasts ahead of Gulf Photo Plus Week from February 10 to 17 in Dubai

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3 Feb 2017 | 12:00 am
  • Maggie Steber on a shoot in Haiti.

    Source:Supplied

Maggie Steber

Documentary photographer and author

Award-winning documentary photographer and author Maggie Steber is known for her touching and emotion-packed images, particularly of people in Haiti, where she has been working for more than 30 years.

‘Photography helps me make sense of the world,’ says Maggie. ‘It quenches a thirst; I have to understand a wider range of ideas, cultures, histories and people.’

Her works have been published in several international titles including The New York Times, Smithsonian, The New Yorker and National Geographic. The latter carried her photo feature on Dubai.

A judge on many award panels, Maggie is also a respected art teacher.

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How has visual storytelling evolved, particularly with the advent of social media?

Social media has made visual storytelling much more accessible to a wider audience and allows the entry of every level of photographer. It’s another platform where people can post things as they’d like to have them seen.

I think Instagram and Facebook are very intimate. I’m excited about how these platforms can be used to reinvent one’s self, even though they really changed photography, photographic business and the venues for photography (magazines and newspapers). I feel storytelling now has become more contemporary. Stories are told or ‘visualed’ in a greater variety of ways, whether it’s photojournalism or documentary work, fashion, politics or portraiture. I like the contemporary feel because I have long felt that photographs that told stories tended to look the same.

What challenges do you face when telling a story?

You have to figure out what the story is, especially if it’s someone else’s story; how you will connect to it and to that person or group. Research is key. Focusing is critical. You can have a big idea but you have to go bit by bit. Also patience. Don’t be in such a hurry that you miss the best stuff. And, importantly: know the business of photography; you can be the best photographer in the world and not be able to earn a living.

You’ve worked in over 66 countries. Which place is top of your mind?

Haiti, because I worked there for 30 years and am still working there on personal projects and with a Haitian non-profit, Fotokonbit.org, which teaches photography to young people. I [also] have a website on Haiti, Audacity of Beauty. Haiti is an extremely complicated place where fair play has no home and where history imprinted a future that seems to be an unsolvable problem. But it’s also magical, beautiful, haunting, political, courageous.

I’ve also worked all over Africa and I love it so much. When I stand on African soil, a silent thunder roars up my body. Haiti is like that, too.

Do you think people are getting desensitised after seeing so many pictures of people suffering, so frequently?

I absolutely do and partly it’s because violence and suffering and hate seem to be growing. But it could also be because of social media showing us more of these things that happen. It’s also because often photographers go for the same moments, places, events and they don’t go deep.

I talk about this a lot in a workshop called Daring to See the World in a New Way, which is what I’m teaching in Dubai during Gulf Photo Plus week.

If we can find new ways to frame ideas and photographs, we help the photos do their job, which is to inform and to change things through knowledge. How we do that means success or failure of an image but, even more, whether someone’s life will be somehow changed for the better because their story is known.

Is that a challenge for photographers?

Yes, because we tend to copy stylistically photographers whose work we admire. Everyone does this, some never go beyond but others do to create their own visual style, something unique and hopefully fresh.

But it’s important to look at all kinds of photography - photojournalism, documentary, fashion, film noir, portraiture, even periods of photography. Finally, you have to take a LOT of photographs, just to get better and find your style.

What’s your take on gratuitous or excessive poverty/violence?

I think that’s what we see and that’s why the pictures are ineffective in causing change, or informing. For example, photographers love to go to Haiti – it’s bright and visual, beautiful light set against a blue sky as a backdrop for the poorest people in the Western hemisphere. It’s poverty made beautiful. Showing violence for the sake of violence is pornographic, although some things must absolutely be shown. It’s a quandary. For example, in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, thousands of journalists poured in, many never having been to Haiti and knowing nothing about it, to photograph the suffering. Many came looking for violence, for shooting and looting and rioting. Bodies lay everywhere. There were so many injured people they spilled out on to the sidewalks of hospitals, people lay dying and photographers and cameramen would step over them, photographing and then moving on. No matter where you looked, there was great suffering. I tried to photograph their courage. Showing both devastation and courage was the best way to cover that story.

You’ve said photographers have to think how to take new kinds of pictures that look different but still tell the story in an intimate way. Could you give an example?

I’ve done stories on the history of the African slave trade, on cities and cultures, on my mother who suffered from memory loss for the last nine years of her life. With my mother, I photographed everything but especially her hands, which I loved, and as she slept. I had the time.

I did a story on memory and each photograph was a metaphor for a memory, so it was more interpretive.

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Maggie’s top tips

1. Find a project and work on it over a long period of time. Spend time on it, learn about it, see new things, have different experiences, find a theme or a focus that is more interesting. Be an explorer.

2. Learn your markets. If you want to publish, find out which magazines or sites would use your photos. Will they pay? Look at print and online magazines, newspapers and websites of everything from radio to TV to networks and visual sites. What do they use? Have they published a similar story recently? If you want to exhibit, you have to learn about the art world.

3. Be patient. The best stuff happens when you practise patience and have a true deep interest in something. If you don’t spend time, your work will remain superficial and you won’t achieve anything new or different.

4. Learn about the business. Examine contracts carefully. Don’t be afraid to ask about budgets. What will your pay cover, is it a fee or do you pay your expenses? What usage does the pay cover?

5. Be kind, be generous. You don’t have to give your ideas away, and you shouldn’t, but this is a very competitive business and those who show grace throughout their careers last much longer. Be willing to listen and be easy to work with. Don’t let your ego take over when you have successes. Understand that picture editors are the unsung heroes of the publishing world. They determine our success and they do battle for our work. Respect them.

Ammar Al Attar

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Photographer and mixed-media artist

A mmar Al Attar’s first serious brush with photography was in 2003 when he bought his first 3.2 megapixel camera.
‘I was curious about photography,’ says the 35-year-old Emirati who works in the licensing department of the Roads and Transport Authority in Dubai. ‘I used to enjoy taking photographs and when I learnt that the Fifa World Youth Football Cup was happening, I decided I’d document it,’ he says.

The passion to document a sporting event led to capturing images of religious, historical and cultural relevance. Totally self-taught – ‘I attended a lot of photography workshops’ – Ammar, a postgraduate in international business relations, soon upgraded his equipment in 2006 and started taking pictures ‘with certain themes’.

His first solo exhibition at Dubai’s Cuadro Gallery was in 2013. Titled Prayer Rooms, the images depicted mosques – from ones on the roadsides and neighbourhoods to those in shopping malls and office complexes. He followed it up with Sibeel Water the same year at Cuadro. This one examined the public water fountains commonly found outside villas and government buildings in the UAE.

He has since done several projects with varied subjects, including the meaning of prayer in Islam; photography studios in the UAE; and the fast-disappearing old cinema theatres. He participates in GPP Week’s group exhibition Take the Shot.

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Do you face any challenges documenting the culture and heritage of the UAE?

I must say it was a lot easier when I first started documenting Emirati culture and heritage in 2007.

There weren’t too many photographers at the time and, importantly, social media was not so popular or widespread. So
people would talk to you and agree to be photographed. They had no fears that their pictures would be shared on social media. You could shoot in most places in the UAE without encountering problems.

But now people are a lot more sensitive. They ask so many questions. What are you doing? Why are you doing this? What do you plan to do with the pictures? People are more concerned, more suspicious. However, if you explain to them that you are doing a project to document and preserve culture, they understand and are willing to help you.

What’s your take on the impermanence of things and the role of photographers?

Unfortunately, it’s true – a lot of things are impermanent. Lots of things are being lost for various reasons, including development. You see, everything has a date and time so photographers have the task of documenting and preserving them so they will remain forever, at least in print. That’s what I’m doing with my project Reverse Moments. I set out to discover old photo studios in the UAE, some dating back to the early 60s. These studios were largely used by people to take passport photos. I wanted to collect copies of these old portraits and present them as works of art. The project was a document of the history of photography in the UAE.

I also found that a lot of people during those early years used to take pictures of various landmarks of the time. Their photographs offer an insight into the life of the times. That is a slice of history and I am collecting and preserving those pictures. In fact I will be showing some of those pictures at the GPP. So I guess in some ways we are recording history and preserving it for future generations.

What subjects do you enjoy shooting?

I’ve started a photography project, Salah, on prayers in Islam. I did a lot of research about the various movements performed during our prayers and then translated the images into artwork. Now more people are aware of why we perform certain rituals. I think it’s very important to show how beautiful our religion is. Last year, Salah was featured at the Yinchuan Biennale in China.

I also started the Prayer Room project in 2012 to document the various places of prayer in the UAE and now I am expanding it to Saudi Arabia.

What’s the best recognition you’ve received?

I haven’t received a lot of awards, but there have been occasions when a few youngsters have come to me and said that they’d heard my talk and had taken up photography as a hobby. To me, that is the best award. If you can inspire a new generation to do work like your own, that, I think, is the best honour you can get.

What is your guiding principle in photography?

Always ask yourself a few questions when shooting. Why do you want to show a picture a particular way? Why do you want to photograph a particular subject? What made you think of the subject? Every time you ask these questions, you will get more ideas about how to shoot better and how to present your work.
Also, imagine you are viewer and ask yourself whether you would like to see the picture.

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Ammar’s top tips

1. Research your topic before you shoot.

2. Take up more people-related projects.

3. The last thing you need to think about is your equipment. Idea is paramount.

4. Take more workshops and lessons, not just in photography but anything related to the arts. Screen-writing or framing for instance. These will help you to develop your craft.

Matt Armandariz

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Food photographer, stylist and blogger

Food, says Matt Armandariz, is something that unites all of us. ‘I believe people who cook and feed others are the most generous and warm people on the planet.’

The US-based food photographer, stylist, blogger and author must surely know. For over two decades Matt has been busy documenting dishes on film, writing about his culinary experiences, preparing and tasting dishes – he has even been on Martha Stewart’s television show where he shared his favourite cookie recipe with viewers.

A former graphic designer in the food industry, he admits that it is his ‘love for food and all things related to food’ that led him to become a food photographer. ‘For a while I was art-directing food shoots,’ he said. But when he found he wasn’t happy with the results, he decided to pick up the camera ‘to appease the control freak in me’.

Matt, who is self-taught, spent more than three years learning the intricacies of the camera and today shoots with a plethora of equipment including Canon, Sigma and medium-format digital Hasselblad. A master in the digital format, he usually uses an 80, 100 or 120 macro lens for food photography.

‘For a good food photograph, the food should first and foremost inspire you,’ says Matt, who will be conducting a photography session at Gulf Photo Plus week.

‘Food should inspire you to cook, to buy, to eat, to save for later as a reference, to think about a culture’s food or about the person who made it or grew it.

Matt has written two books - On a Stick and Focus on Food Photography for Bloggers.

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What kinds of food are most difficult to shoot, and why?

Soups, stews and meats go to the top of my list, but I’m always up for the challenge. They are difficult because they are formless, or slabs of dead meat, pardon me for saying that. We overcome the challenges by playing up the props or the things that can lend some beauty, like the surface or a beautiful bowl or additional garnish.

How important is it to have a good rapport with a food stylist? Or do you prefer styling food yourself?

Styling food myself would be like a fashion photographer doing hair and make-up herself before photographing the model!
I joke, but I always say this because working with a food stylist is an integral part of food photography. It’s certainly a team effort. But if I’m at home photographing some cookies I made, well, I’m confident in doing it alone. As far as developing a rapport with a stylist, it’s very important to share the same visual language, to be in sync, and to work closely to produce beautiful images.

What’s your take on food blogging?

I think food blogging and social media have democratised the art of food photography, and that’s a very good thing. But I’m a bit biased as I got my start as a food blogger before jumping into commercial food photography.

What is the basic equipment a food photographer should have?

A camera! Since food looks its best in natural light, you don’t need to have tons of equipment.

You are a popular blogger. What are the elements of a blog that get people to visit it often?

I’ve been a bad food blogger lately, thanks to Instagram! But to me, what makes a blog popular is that there is a unique voice and perspective that the reader can get to know. The writer shares himself so that the posts become a conversation, and one gets to know the person behind the cooking. The most popular food blogs in the world are all penned by people with a unique point and view who take the time to let you into their worlds.

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Matt’s top tips

I really only have two points of advice: shoot and cook! And as often as possible. To improve in your craft, you need to be able to do it with your eyes closed, and you need to have experience with every type of food.

Davide Monteleone

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Documentary photographer

Davide Monteleone firmly believes that the photography world needs ‘educated, smart people who know what they are talking about – photographers who dedicate time to research and think what they want to say and how they want to say it.’

Italian Davide became a photographer in 1998 and three years later moved to Russia. His plan was to document the lives of people there for six months, but the country made such a strong impression on him that it became his second home. Russia was the subject of the three books he published, with the last, Red Thistle, bagging him the European Publishers Award for Photography 2011.

‘Photography,’ says Davide, who has been featured by Time, BBC and The New Yorker, ‘is a tool to have access, to open doors, to look at the world to discover and to think.’

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What has your most challenging photography project been?

Every project I’ve done was challenging in different ways, and probably the next one will be even more so. For me, the most challenging thing is to decide how to visualise the idea I have in mind and find the best way to create a narrative story that respects both the initial concept, topic and subject. The most difficult things come before the act of taking pictures – research, logistics and organisation. Often, taking pictures is pretty organic and simple when I have a clear idea of what I want to do. Nevertheless, surprises on the field are always possible, sometime they are welcome, sometimes not.

Is photography a journey of self-discovery?

I think it’s both a journey and [a process of] self-discovery. I travel to discover myself. Photography is a tool to have access, to open doors, to look at the world to discover and to think. Now after over 16 years in the business, I think I use photography in the same way I use my senses – I collect information and emotions and elaborate them in the form of pictures that become books, exhibitions, photo stories. I tend to follow stories I have a personal interest in.

What are the common mistakes beginners make in documentary photography?

There’s a note I’ve kept in my notebook since I decided to be a photographer. It’s Italian but it can be translated more or less like this: ‘Photographers go to a place to take pictures and as soon as they understand something, they go off somewhere else.’

This is the biggest mistake you can do when you attempt documentary photography. This is an old stereotype but, fortunately, is changing. Photographers need to dedicate time to research and think what they want to say and how they want to say it.

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Davide’s top tips

Taking pictures is extremely easy. Knowing why you want to do that and what you want to archive requires a bit more awareness. Five qualities every documentary photographer should have? Passion, tenacity, education, honesty and a genuine interest for the topic you decide to approach.

Why you shouldn’t miss GPP Photo Week

Ten world-renowned photographers will take part in Gulf Photo Plus’ GPP Photo Week from February 10–17 at Alserkal Avenue in Al Quoz. The festival kicks off with Sony Photo Friday and its 90-minute seminars, technical and inspirational talks and creative panels. Throughout the week there are talks on innovation and techniques, as well as workshops led by the likes of photographers Maggie Steber and Davide Monteleone; conceptual and fantastical photographer, Ben Von Wong and street photographer Asim Rafiqui.

Visit gulfphotoplus/gpp2017 for more information and to book.

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Anand Raj OK

Features Editor