4 Steps to Help You Start a Documentary Photography Project
The thing you need to do for getting good ideas which are actually possible, is to weigh the game in your favour.
You need to be selective in your project choices, research well, and demonstrate an intense curiosity when pitching your project idea.
The four steps in this article will help you:
- Use your interests to research and learn about a subject.
- Demonstrate your curiosity to those who hold the key. These are the gatekeepers.
- Gain access.
- Start a documentary photography project.
Primarily a street photographer, using this method I transitioned into documenting places hidden behind closed doors, as you can too.
Step #1. What are you interested in?
The first thing to ask yourself is, what are you actually interested in? Grab your pen and pad, write down “What Interests Me?”, then number lines, 1 to 20.
Without thinking too much, fill in all the way down to the bottom of the list. The goal here isn’t to think about where your interests might go, but rather to give you a reference from which to work.
Look back at your photographs and see what you like to capture. Lots of street photographs like these were coming about due to my interest in transport. I’ve now started projects about the local train station, and a local bus company.
Step #2. Whittle down your list
Now that you’ve got your list of 20 interests, the next thing you need to do is get rid of those which are not visual in nature, or are impractical. For example, you should cross off astronaut training from your list, or following your favourite sports star around the world, as they do their thing. It just isn’t realistic, at least not in the early days.
Your goal here is to have a list of potentially visually stimulating interests which are readily accessible (assuming you gain access) to go back to over many visits. A key part about documentary photography is understanding what is going on, and picking up on the subtleties of the situations. You need to be able to go back again and again, build rapport, and blend in – because it is at that point that you’ll start producing quality photographs.
With the list reduced to those that are practical, which also have a visual interest, you should select three that you believe will be most interesting to others. This is important for a couple of reasons:
- You’re starting to think about what your audience will be thinking. This will be useful when it comes to talking to the gatekeepers, to use as a reason why you should document the subject.
- You’re thinking about what the gatekeepers find interesting. You need to be able to demonstrate empathy with the people you contact.
Finally, of those three interests, which one do you feel you know the most about? This makes the next step easier.
Don’t forget to think laterally. While I’m as musical as a crumbling wall, being an engineer, I could appreciate the design and material aspects of violin making.
Step #3. Research your interest and finding out who to contact
Once you’ve chosen your interest, you should further your understanding. Get your notebook again, start researching and make notes. Some suggestions:
- Google your interest, and read the top three or four links.
- Read the related Wikipedia article, making sure you follow any links that stand out.
- If you’re researching a company, devour their website. Click every single page. Read everything.
- Search on Google News for your interest.
While reading, in addition to anything that grabs your interest, keep an eye out for:
- A name for someone you might be able to contact.
- Something time sensitive which is changing. Part of documentary photography is recording something for historic purposes.
All of this collected information will form ammunition for your first contact, showing your knowledge, interest, and understanding of the subject. Remember this should be interesting stuff to you. If it feels like a chore, you’ve probably chosen the wrong interest as a subject, or aren’t connected with it.
You should be deeply interested in the subject. I had no problem spending hours, upon hours, researching the local train station, because I wanted an all-access pass so badly.
Next, you should consider your close friends and family. Do any of them have links to your interests? Those who do, are they in a position to give you the access you’re after? If so, great! They’re going to be who you contact. If they’re not, you should still talk with them about your interests, and desires. They might be able to put you in contact with a connection.
After you’ve found the person you’re going to contact, you should look for their details. It might be as easy as looking at their contact page online, or through finding someone else’s email address at the company, working out their structure, and taking a punt.
For example, if you wanted to contact John Doe to ask about documenting Company XYZ, through some Googling, or looking at XYZ’s PR or HR page, you might find an email address like john.doe@XYZ.com. It wouldn’t be too difficult to imagine email@example.com. I’ve used this in the past to great success.
Guessing an email address allowed me to access the Oxford Train Station which I’m currently documenting as they redevelop.
In large organizations, you might find the assistant to the gatekeeper is the person you’re going to be contacting. LinkedIn is also a brilliant resource.
One final piece of research to do, is to look for example photographs you can show the person you’re making contact with. These can either be your own work, or the work of other photographers (be sure to credit them though). What you’re looking for is something that visually explains the kind of thing you’re seeking to achieve.
At this point, you should have a chunk of research about the organization, relevant news articles, an idea of who you’re going to contact, and some example photographs to show them.
Step #4. Making contact – demonstrating your interest and knowledge
It is now time for you to put it all together in an email. Your email should include:
- Why you’re emailing that particular person. This is about understanding why they are the gatekeeper to the project, showing that you care about the subject, and demonstrating your understanding.
- Show your curiosity and understanding of their role within the organization.
- Tell them what you want to do. Make your request clear and straightforward. Note: don’t ask for everything at once. If you think what you want to ask is too much, dial it down, and ask for something smaller. Once you’re in, and have gained their trust, they’ll open things up for you. As well as explaining what you want to do, you should also explain why you want to produce and show your audience the photographs at all. Mention the examples you’ve attached.
- Tell them what they can do with the photographs. Give them permission to use those that you’re going to take. It is the least you can do. Make suggestions where they can use them, for example in their monthly newsletter (if you can somehow find out what they call the newsletter, make sure to include that too) or on their social media.
- Tell them what you want to do. Explain your intentions for the photographs, e.g., are they for an exhibition (don’t worry if you’ve not arranged one, if the work is good that will sort itself out later), a book, or just your website. Be honest about your intentions.
- Understand the difficulties. This will impress them. You’re once again demonstrating your understanding of what they do. You’re effectively saying, “I know there are problems that me being there will bring, but I think they’re worth overcoming”. Bring it back to why you want to do the project in the first place, so that they can see the benefits, and why they outweigh the difficulties.
- Summarize all of the above and suggest what the next action step. You could say something like, “If this sounds interesting to you Mr. Doe, it would be great to discuss this further when it suits you sometime”.
Don’t be scared to chase emails either. If you don’t hear from them within the week, send a follow up email or phone call. Without it, I wouldn’t have shot at Oxford Violins.
In addition, you should make it clear that none of your ideas are set in stone, and that you’re open to their input (remember, it is highly likely that they are more knowledgeable than you are).
Finally get someone to check it. Before you do though, make sure you don’t prime them as to your intentions. You’re looking to find out if your request is obvious, clear, straightforward, that you’ve demonstrated your curiosity, and that there is a single next step that is easy to understand.
Now send it.
Step #5. What do you do next?
Once you’ve got your foot through the door, you need to show your face, be confident, demonstrate your knowledge, ask questions, and show your curiosity. Assuming that all goes well, the rest should pan out nicely. Start shooting, see how the project develops, and learn as you go.
This is where the joy starts. You’ve used your interest, and your camera, to get into somewhere that is fascinating to you. Enjoy yourself. Make friends, and click that shutter.
Before you know it, you’ll be behind the scenes in places you couldn’t have imagined yourself being.
Bio: Peter David Grant has produced an exclusive ebook of the emails he’s used to get access to many of his projects for dPS readers. He’s deconstructed them, explaining why each bit is in there, and provides templates for you to use. You can get it here.
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