All of the great people photographers have the unique ability of gaining extraordinary access to events and people’s lives. This is doubly true of the best photojournalists, but it goes for everyone, from a portrait photographer to a wedding shooter. It’s this access that sets their images apart.
There are two different kinds of access, of course. The first is institutional access, the ability to gain access to locations, teams, businesses, organizations, campaigns, etc. Personal access is the ability to make your subjects feel comfortable enough to get them to relax around you so that the work you do reflects who they really are, not just who they are around a photographer.
In my job, both are crucial.
Once you’ve gotten access, you need to know what gear you’re going to use to get the job done. This is almost as important as gaining access in the first place. If you’re trying to get in to photograph people evacuating from a forest fire, bringing along studio lighting is going to get you shut out. Likewise, bring nothing but a small flash to a portrait shoot of a CEO, and you’ll probably see the door to his or her office close.
Institutional Access: Getting In The Door
Most institutions have people in place to limit access. It’s their job to control the message. Allowing access opens them up to scrutiny and chaos. Now we’re also seeing organizations limiting access because they want exclusive coverage for their own websites and social-media channels. Almost every organization is competing directly with the media outlets that cover them.
The goal is to convince them that allowing access is in their best interest, or at least not going to do them harm. This is easier said than done. It’s a slow process, and takes patience and relationship-building. Sometimes things fall into place with no effort at all, just asking is all it takes, but I see that happening less and less. Success depends on what questions you ask and how you ask them.
In Oregon, we have a lot of forest fires, and the U.S. Forest Service controls access. Disobeying Forest Service orders will land you in jail. I covered a big fire in John Day, Oregon, where over 50 structures were burned to the ground, and the Forest Service prohibited us from photographing burned-out houses during their tour.
One way to get around this is to go in with a homeowner. I was with a homeowner for most of the day when a fellow I was with got a call from a relative requesting his help moving some horses. I asked to follow along and photograph the process. Because of the time I spent with him, he felt comfortable enough to decide that he trusted me, and he took me through three roadblocks that I wouldn’t have gotten through without him. I was there as they moved their horses while helicopters dropped water from overhead.
One of my assigned subjects, Ashton Eaton, holds the world record in decathlon and indoor heptathlon, and has an Olympic gold medal from the 2012 Olympic Games in London. You’d think that it would be difficult to get access to a recent Olympic gold medalist, but it couldn’t have been easier. That’s because I’m friends with Track and Field reporter Ken Goe, who has a great relationship with Eaton.
After covering Eaton during practice, I heard the athletes were heading to the recovery pools, which are normally off-limits to all media. I had little hope of getting permission. Even though Eaton thought it would be okay, I was skeptical it would happen because there were other athletes present and they usually like their privacy.
I was allowed in, and the photo at the pools was one of my favorites of the day. Eaton was refreshing to work with, and he taught me the lesson that a gold medalist can take you to places you wouldn’t normally have access to and no one says a word.
Another obstacle to gaining extra access is the presence of other media. If PR people give one photographer access, all the photographers will complain—at least that’s the excuse from handlers. Nowadays, there are busloads of blog photographers covering everything imaginable. The only way to manage this many photographers is to lock down access. Every year, every venue I cover restricts access in some way—sometimes small, sometimes significant.
Easily one of the most complicated negotiations I’ve ever pulled off was covering Marcus Mariota’s NFL draft day party in his hometown of Honolulu. We found out early that we—all the interested media—might not be able to be in the same room with him when he found out which team would select him.
Knowing there would be limited access, I contacted Mariota’s PR person and pitched the idea of being the pool photographer. A pool photographer shoots images and shares them with the other members of the media so all the outlets get coverage without having to be in the room.
In my pitch, I explained all the ways I could get photos out almost instantaneously to anyone who needed them. I must have had a good plan because I was selected as the pool photographer. This put me within arm’s reach when Mariota took the call from the Tennessee Titans as the overall number-two draft pick.
Tips For Earning Trust
| • Be totally honest with anyone you ask for access. Clearly state your intentions and what it will take to achieve your goals. Having a clear idea of why you want access can be the most important thing you do. Your idea needs to be reasonable and well articulated. Don’t ask for access unless you have a specific idea of what you want to achieve.
• Know the people you’re talking to and what their role is in an organization. Be courteous, yet persistent and firm (but not too persistent and not too firm). Strike a balance. It’s a fine line that’s easy to cross.
• Understand the limitations and constraints of your access. Don’t ask for access you’ll never be granted. Ask for access that’s reasonable and possible. It helps to research similar situations where a photographer was granted access and have that information ready.
• Know who the decision makers are and appeal to them directly, but don’t jump the chain of command in an organization unless you know for sure it won’t hurt your credibility or cause problems for the person you’re jumping over.
• Play by the rules. If you’re playing the long game, it doesn’t pay to violate rules. I’ve seen more than one photographer leave scorched earth. It can take years to recover.
• Be patient. You’re on their time. They owe you nothing, and they don’t care about your deadline issues. This isn’t to say you can’t explain your needs, just don’t act like they should care.
Telling Their Story
While it’s difficult to secure access to locations and celebrities, it’s more difficult to gain access to people’s lives in order to t
ell their stories. This is something the news media often has to do—figure out how to get people to let you into their lives in what’s often a difficult or hectic time. (There are few stories written about happy families with plenty of money and good health.)
There’s no road map for this kind of access, except communicating with total honesty and clearly stating your intentions. In my experience, people either trust you or they don’t. Sometimes their personal agendas compel them to trust. Sometimes it doesn’t work out. But everyone wants to know the journalist has empathy for them. Empathy makes trust—trust isn’t something you can fake. Trust is real.
I’ve been working on a series of stories with reporter Anna Griffin about the homeless crisis in Portland, Oregon. We went to a homeless shelter that provides night housing for families. While we had permission from the organization to enter the shelter, it was up to me to secure permission from everyone I photographed.
As one could imagine, not everyone was excited by the idea. This is a case of building trust very quickly. After I photographed a young girl taking care of her infant brother on the cots they would sleep on that night, I sat and talked to her. I showed the family the photo and they decided it would be okay for us to cover them.
Showing the photo to a subject can be risky. I’ve had people see it and shut me down. On the other hand, denying them a look won’t go well, either. In this case, they could see I wasn’t trying to portray them in a negative light. I think they recognized the innocent humanity in the image.
How To Evaluate The Shoot And Decide What Gear To Pack
Once you’ve been granted access, it’s crucial to pick the right gear. If you show up to photograph a basketball game from the court, don’t expect to be able to bring your studio lights. Sometimes, though, having portable studio gear sets you apart from the pack and lets the PR people know you’re serious.
I have three basic strategies and one rule for deciding my approach with regard to equipment. Typically, the more I know about the shoot, the less I take.
What I plan to use in a shoot and what I pack in my SUV are two different things. While I may bring long tele lenses, studio lights, stands and light modifiers in my car, I’m not going to bring them in unless I need them. But I’m also not going to leave them at home.
If I know for a fact that my shoot will only allow available light, have no portraits and basically involve hanging out with my subject, I may pack as little as two bodies and three prime lenses.
The next level, which is more typical, is that I don’t know exactly what I’m going to encounter and I need to be versatile. This means I pack a roller case with four bodies and lenses ranging from 14mm to 300mm, plus a 400mm or 600mm, depending on how far from home I go. I also carry a light stand bag that will accommodate a slimmed-down lighting kit with small strobes.
The least likely strategy is packing for doomsday. This means I don’t have a clue what I’m in for and pack everything I own, including all the cameras and lenses that I own. I pack all my big lights and light stands, sound equipment and a crate full of miscellaneous things like gaffer tape, batteries, supplies, rain gear, cold weather gear, etc.
I usually throw in an equipment cart, as well. If I’m leaving town on assignment, I pack for two more days than I was assigned, because you never know when the single-day story turns into a multiday assignment.
This level of packing also works when I have a complex commercial shoot with assistants. This load will cover nearly any scenario that may come up.
Flying with equipment is another ball game completely. The good thing is that I usually have good information about the shoot. Photographers typically don’t hop on a plane without prior planning. For me, I usually fly for game coverage and that requires a very specific kit. It’s usually one Think Tank Photo roller case and a backpack with computer gear. If it’s a three-day trip, I pack my clothes around the equipment. Anymore than that, and I’ll pack a separate bag for clothes.
Getting It: How To Nail The Shot, And Choosing The Right Equipment
The trick to managing equipment is letting the light determine what’s used and taking in only what’s needed. My guiding philosophy in lighting environmental portraits is to make it difficult to tell the shot was artificially lit. On the flip side, I also like to dramatically light portraits. Lately, I’ve been experimenting with LED light sources and high-speed-sync radios with shallow depth of field. I like both approaches.
If I have a secret weapon, it’s my tripod. I have a very good carbon-fiber version that I use often. I like to use it in situations that some wouldn’t expect. I think a lot of photographers don’t give tripods enough respect for what they can do. I rarely leave home without it.
When I’m traveling light and I may need to shoot a portrait, I like to take a reflector with me. Of course, the sun needs to be out, but if it is, I can use it in many different situations. It’s especially nice if I’m at a campus or someplace where I have to park far from the subject. For this, I like to bring a reflector, a tripod and a camera.
If I’m doing an involved shoot that I intend to light, I’ll bring everything in on a roller cart. The one I have was designed for musicians to carry their equipment into a gig. It’s very sturdy and can carry two lighting cases, my camera roller bag, my light stand bag, sand bags, several C-stands and my computer bag, and it still rolls with ease.
I’m lucky to have a vast array of equipment. I usually shoot between five to 10 assignments a week for the newspaper and then various freelance commercial shoots, weddings, business portraits and editorial assignments thrown into the mix. I rarely have to rent anything, which is nice, because it takes a lot of time to pick up and drop off equipment.
How NOT To Act
| • Don’t ever act like someone should be obligated to grant you access. I’ve seen shooters act entitled, and it never works.
• Don’t be too compliant. It seems like the opposite of the rule above, but you also don’t want someone dictating your access if they don’t have the right to.
• Once you’re in, don’t take it too far. Don’t act like you own the place. Just because one person granted you access doesn’t mean everyone involved is onboard. Identify your allies, and stay close.
• Don’t show up late, and, by late, I mean on time.
• Don’t talk too much. I see this more from reporters than photographers. The last thing you want to do is be the center of attention. Shut your pie hole, watch, and listen.
• Don’t take rejection personally, even if it sometimes is. Everyone has his or her own sovereignty and rights over it.
The Secret Is There Is No Secret
I wish I had a secret to share that opens doors and makes everyone trust you with their most intimate and guarded moments. Truth is, like everything, it takes practice, and some people are just naturally better at developing trust and access than others.
To know who they are, just find the photographers at the top of the game. They’re all good at getting access—that’s why they’re successful. It’s not because they know the best shutter speed to use or the perfect aperture setting. They’re successful because they get their camera in front of subjects no one else can.
I’m also sure, like me, they have made about every mistake that can be made in the pursuit of extraordinary access. It’s much easier to fail than to succeed, but you can’t get access without trying.
You can see more of Thomas Boyd’s work at thomasrboyd.com. Follow him on Twitter @thomasboyd.