Documentary Photography Assignment

One of the biggest changes photography has seen over the last 10 years is in photojournalism and documentary photography. Some will see this change as good while others will see this change as bad. The improvements made to consumer DSLR cameras, lenses and editing software have opened the doors for many photography hobbyists to engage in documentary photography.

Gone are the days when having a good camera and access to a darkroom separated the professional photographer from the amateur photographer. The playing field has been levelled and it is open season for anyone to take part. Within this new landscape there is an abundance of opportunities for you to possibly earn a little extra cash by taking photos for your local paper, magazines or online news outlets.

The assignments will always vary. You may be asked to cover a government meeting or the opening of a new business. You may be taking pictures for a human interest story about a unique person in your town. You could be asked to cover a local high school football game or be asked to rush to the scene of an accident. You may find yourself taking pictures of a festival or a gala dinner featuring some movers and shakers.

Below is a list of tips that will help you be a better assignment or documentary photographer, and possibly get your foot in the door to get some jobs.


In many regards, photography starts with the gear. It is important to know the limitations of your equipment. It is equally important to know the areas in which your equipment performs well. No matter what camera and lens you are working with, your equipment will have limitations. Don’t spend time wishing for, or wanting a different lens or camera. Use what you have to the best of its ability. A better lens in some warehouse, is not going to help you now.


As an assignment photographer you should be prepped before you go out by the editor of the publication, or the writer of the story. If you have any questions, ask them! I have never had an assignment editor react poorly to me asking questions about a piece they are asking me to cover.

Ignorance can be overcome by asking questions. Overcoming stupid is more challenging. Don’t be stupid. If you are not clear about what is expected of you, ask questions until you and your editor are on the same page.


Speaking of questions, do your pictures answer the ones above? Try to take pictures that answer as many of these questions as possible. While it will be very challenging to capture one picture that addresses all of them, shoot with the idea that your pictures are answering as many as possible.


After you have asked the necessary questions of your assignment editor, do your own research on the subject. This will help you develop ideas, understand how events may unfold, or which images will be more important than others. Don’t expect your editor to tell you exactly what picture to get. They are hiring you, in part, because of your vision. Conducting a little research before you go out will help you find your vision.


After researching your subject, think of shots that you want to capture and work toward those pictures when you are in the field. But don’t knock yourself too much if you don’t get “the” picture you wanted. Documentary photographers have little (or no) control over what happens. Come with an idea that will keep your mind centred, but be prepared to adjust your ideas accordingly as the events unfold before you.


Once you arrive, begin by playing with your exposure settings and shooting styles. This will ensure that you, and your camera, are properly set up when the moment arrives. In the same way athletes warm up before a race or a game you need to begin by getting your mind and your gear in proper condition before the event begins.


Remember, you are there to document what others are doing. The story is not about you. Do what you can to stay out of the way to allow events to unfold naturally. If you are too intrusive your subjects will not relax and you will not be documenting natural events. Stay out of the way and let events unfold in front of you.


Take wide, medium and tight shots of what you are covering. As an example, if you are covering a town hall meeting be sure to get a wide shot that shows all of the filled, or empty chairs, in the room. A medium shot may be a waist-up shot of someone at the podium. A tight shot would be a head shot of someone expressing emotion as they discuss the subject of the meeting or as they listen to the presenters speak.


Proper focus is critical in all photography. It is essential in documentary photography and photojournalism. Your focal point tells the viewer what they should be looking at. If you are still taking pictures at that town hall meeting you can have two very different pictures of someone at the podium if one picture is focused on the speaker and another picture is focused on all of the microphones that the presenter is speaking into. One picture shows who was talking and the other picture shows how many people (news outlets) were there to cover the event. Each picture has its own meaning and that is derived from the focal point.


I make a lot of sports analogies when talking about documentary photography because, in many regards, photojournalism and documentary photography is a sport. Just as a quarterback has to read the defence as he stands behind the centre, a documentary photographer has to have his eyes and attention in several places at once. By keeping a constant vigil on your surroundings you will see a picture developing in the same way a quarterback sees a play developing. The great ones always seem to be a few seconds ahead of the action.


A professional attitude will help to guarantee two things. One, it will help to ensure that those around you understand that you have a job to do and they will permit you to do your job as long as you maintain a professional demeanour. The other thing a professional attitude will bring to you is another assignment. If word gets back to your editor that you were forcing people to behave in a certain way or that you interfered with the event to get a shot, you may not get another chance to work for that editor again because you have embarrassed them (and yourself) in your attempts to get a great picture.


Once you get back home or to the office, back up your pictures. It doesn’t matter if you put them on a second hard drive, upload them to the cloud or put them on a disk. Make sure that you have copies of your pictures in more than one place in the event that the originals become damaged, destroyed or lost.


Your job as an assignment photographer doesn’t end when you back up your pictures. More times than not you will be asked to caption your photos. Your assignment editor will have no idea of the names of the people in your pictures. It will be up to you to write a brief description for each picture you are turning in. An easy way to do this is to answer the questions, who, what, when, where and why when making captions. “How” may not always be relevant.


If you are asked to turn in edited pictures, don’t over-edit your work. Photojournalism and documentary photography are about the real world. In a strict sense you should only adjust the contrast of your picture. Some news outlets shun adding too much color and all news outlets shun the removal or addition of elements into a picture.


Being easy to work with is incredibly important in today’s freelance assignment photography landscape. It is becoming easier and easier to take quality pictures with less than professional equipment. Photographers are becoming very replaceable as there are more and more people with photo skills itching to get a little credit and maybe even a little money. Make sure you have an easy payment process. Make sure it is easy to get in touch with you, and that you respond quickly to emails and phone calls. Make sure you are open to your editor’s suggestions and that you are willing to go the extra mile to make them happy. Make it a no-brainer for them to rehire you because there are more photographers behind you just waiting for their chance.

This is a great time to get your foot in the door as a freelance assignment photographer. It’s not easy work and it’s not always sexy. But with hard work, a good eye, a professional attitude and determination you can find yourself on a short list of photographers that assignment editors want to use again and again.


It is true that documentary photography dates back to the Civil War but most photo history textbooks credit the era of the 1930s to the 1950s when photographers such as Robert Capa, Margaret Bourke-White, Dorothea Lange, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Alfred Eisenstaedt raised the public awareness of photojournalism and became famous for their magazine and newspaper work. Fast forward to today: photographers in this field now work with a wide range of clients, including magazines, newspapers, corporate foundation clients, nonprofits, and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs). This is NOT an easy field to break into and the rewards are rarely monetary. But like many photography disciplines, a passion for your subject is a requirement for any level of success.

(I want to offer special thanks to Giana Choroszewski, the operations manager at VII Photo Agency, and Will Mosgrove, my mentor at the Academy of Art University, for helping me with this article!)

Before we dive into the business issues, let’s meet each of our photographers.

Deanne Fitzmaurice: Has been working as an assignment photographer in photojournalism and documentary photography for 26 years. Her clients include National Geographic, Sports Illustrated, ESPN, Apple, Google, and Nike. She is also active on Instagram (@deannefitzmaurice).

Jian Gao: Represented by ZUMA Press and a staff member at Magnum Photos, he has been in the field for two years. He has also sold his photographs to National Geographic, ChinaFile (a website project by Asia Society), and others for online publication and print books. His passion is the freedom of working on personal long-term projects.

Ron Haviv: Has been working for more than 20 years as a photographer. His editorial clients have ranged from being on contract with Newsweek for many years to story assignments with Time, New York Times Magazine, Vanity Fair, People, and Vogue amongst others.

Ed Kashi: A well-established photojournalist and mentor for others, he has been working as a freelance photojournalist and filmmaker for over 30 years. He has worked mainly with editorial clients like National Geographic, Time, Newsweek, Fortune, Geo, New York Times Magazine, and many other magazines, but now works more with NGOs, nonprofits, and foundations.

Zoë Meyers: Has been working in the field for about two years, working on assignment for photojournalism and documentary photography clients. She has mostly worked with regional and nonprofit publications and is currently working on a documentary photography and multimedia project, Desert Shores, which explores how water has shaped different communities in California.

Sim Chi Yin: Has been working as a reportage photographer for almost five years and has produced pictures, multimedia, and text working for clients like The New York Times, New Yorker, Le Monde, Wired, Time, Newsweek, New York Times Magazine, and Financial Times Magazine. She has also had work collected by foundations, galleries, and auction houses in Paris and New York. She was a newspaper reporter and foreign correspondent for nine years before quitting to be a visual documentarian.

Unni (Unnikrishnan Raveendranathen): Has been photographing and publishing journalism/documentary work for almost five years and has clients that range from Lonely Planet Magazine (web and print), the Global Oneness Project, local and international NGOs, Handicap International, AARP, and others. In the last two years, he has focused on his work with NGOs and Lonely Planet Magazine.

Shutterbug:When you are looking at your overall marketing efforts, what seems to work best for you—using the traditional marketing (getting published, awards, direct mail, sales calls) or newer online marketing tools (e-mail blasts, websites, social media) or both?

Ed Kashi: At this point it’s a combination of both types of efforts, but direct interaction is still very important if and when you can get it. Most of my new opportunities come via both types of marketing efforts and mostly from my reputation and referrals. Sometimes the hardest clients are the ones I’ve been established with for decades. Weird, huh?

Deanne Fitzmaurice: The most effective marketing has been to create relationships with editors and industry leaders. It takes years to build these relationships but it is, by far, the most valuable thing I have done. Editors hire people they know and trust. Social media has also been very valuable as it is a way to get my work in front of editors every week or as often as I post.

Ron Haviv: The world today is incredibly fragmented in the way that it consumes imagery. This includes potential clients. At the moment I have found that a strategy of combining both traditional marketing along with newer online marketing works best. This is also best supported by actual contact with the potential client.

Jian Gao: I would say getting published and receiving awards are good ways to get your feet in the door. Once you put your name out there in the industry, you are almost halfway there. You then must try to meet some people who work at the news agencies, magazines, and news organizations. If you are lucky, chances to meet people will come to you from these efforts. E-mails work well for me, since I know some people in the top industries. And, as I mentioned, getting published helped these people get to know me and respond to my contacts.

Sim Chi Yin: In terms of assignments and commissions, what has worked for me is largely through getting my work published in the international media. I have also been successful with the VII agency, word-of-mouth recommendations, awards and accolades, and “30 photographers to watch” listings.

Zoë Meyers: I have found that it is necessary to make a direct connection, usually first through a personal e-mail, with the editors in order to get work published. For me, that meant working on stories at first that I more or less “self-assigned” and then pitching finished work to editors to initially build a relationship before editors were contacting me with assignments.

Unni: Yes, there has been a transition, but I still think the traditional method is working well. Now, I have put my efforts into both. A lot of my time goes into marketing in all ways.

SB:What recommendations would you make to a photographer looking to make a career move into photojournalism or documentary photography?

Ron Haviv: Combining a personal vision in the way you would like to tell stories with a nontraditional approach. Thinking differently from the start of how you’re going to photograph a story to how it will be displayed and interact with an audience is a way that will help success.

Ed Kashi: Be ready for a lot of frustration and rejection. You have to truly be committed and prepared to work harder than you’ve ever imagined. You must love this work to put up with the continual demands and the insecure nature of freelancing. In terms of your work, you have to devote yourself to creating great projects and define your work in unique ways.

Deanne Fitzmaurice: For those looking to make a career move into the field of photojournalism, I would say “don’t quit your day job” until you have established yourself. Build your portfolio and your bank account before you venture into this field. Use this time to educate yourself on the business, attend workshops and seminars. Make all your mistakes before you start working for clients. Build your network.

Zoë Meyers: I think getting started in journalism and documentary work takes a lot of patience and flexibility right now. As people tell photographers in every field though, the important thing is to find the stories and issues that you are passionate about, and figure out how you can tell them in a unique way.

Jian Gao: Today’s industry is quite brutal; you will need to build a very strong portfolio before pitching the story to editors. I would say just follow your heart, do the projects that really interest you, don’t think too much, keep reading great photographers’ work but never ever copy them. Keep learning from other resources, such as literature, history, music, and movies. Traveling helps, too. You have to really dedicate yourself to this work for at least a period of time, even before you start to jump into this industry.

Sim Chi Yin: Pursue a well-researched personal project you feel very strongly about, shoot it over time for a strong portfolio to get published. I believe that assignment work doesn’t really allow one to stand out from the crowd too much.

Unni: A career move? Heavy question! I’m not sure what to say. It’s a battlefield out there so please be ready to get hurt and enjoy little success at first. It takes a bit of time to go into this field full-time. Also, doing projects closest to your line of interest would make more sense.

SB:What is the biggest industry change you have seen in this area of the photography business in the last five years?

Deanne Fitzmaurice: The biggest industry change I have seen in the last five years is the demise of print publications and the increase of online publishing opportunities. We are now all publishers but we need to create stories and content that people want to see.

Ed Kashi: The shift to digital platforms, in many cases usurping print as the initial means of distribution, as well as now getting paid for new work commissioned for these digital platforms.

Ron Haviv: The introduction of motion as an avenue for storytelling has been one of the most major changes that have taken place. Many clients are now looking for motion-mixed projects and some are even looking for motion-only stories. However, the mainstay throughout all the changes in the industry has been the ability to be a great storyteller. We just have more tools now to do so.

Jian Gao: I can’t say too much about this, but from what I have been experiencing so far, I find social media and digital technology do help photography in many ways. We have more and more new digital platforms in photography coming up during these recent years.

Zoë Meyers: Even though I haven’t been working in the field for that long, I think the biggest change is that newsrooms and publications are still adjusting to the demand for video work. Photographers now are often expected to shoot both video and stills for assignments.

Unni: Almost everybody has a DSLR and they are all photographers; the concept of making a photograph has been changed and it’s all about “clicking.” I would say since the cost of digital cameras has gone down dramatically and photography has been portrayed as an easy art to the general audience, a lot of times I have come across clients who can’t differentiate a professional photographer versus a guy with a camera.

Sim Chi Yin: I’ve only been in the photo industry for the past five years, but I’d say from year to year things are changing. Our worries and concerns this year are not the same as last year’s concerns. The more established photographers say re-sales (of photos) have dropped by a lot. I feel we’re in a time stuck between the old media and the new. We need to embrace self-publishing and showing projects as we are making them, through Instagram and other social media platforms.

© Unnikrishnan Raveendranathen

Deanne Fitzmaurice:
Jian Gao:
Ron Haviv:
Ed Kashi:
Zoë Meyers:
Sim Chi Yin:

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