Can a writer take pictures too?
Recently a writer made a crack on freelance message board about how the quality of the publications must be poor if they let the same person handle both words and images. I understand the reasoning behind hiring specialists to focus on the area that they handle best, but when for whatever reason the publication isn’t going to send a dedicated photographer, my refusing to take pics would likely result in a disgruntled editor and the use of stock pics, which ultimately doesn’t do much to attract readers.
I’ve periodically been asked to take photos since the very beginning of my writing career, and I have accordingly paid attention to developing my photography skills. My photos have run with my stories on the websites of CNN, CSMonitor, Dwell, GlobalPost, and USA Today–not the same as shooting a National Geographic cover, but not too shabby, either.
Over the years, I’ve shot my own photos; researched images for the client; handed over a shot list for photographers; watched editors select their own stock images; and worked closely with photographers in developing a package of words and images that complement one another. Each approach offers its own advantages to the editor, the readers, and myself.
As you can imagine, the last one works pretty well with the right person. I’m working on a few stories again with Stephen Coetzee, and it really is a collaboration: I talk through my article-in-progress with him, and he gives me feedback and suggestions about what information is most interesting. We talk about what images would help tell part of the story. And then when we’re out together, I am reporting but also pointing out photo opps that he might not notice. We’re both fully capable of doing our roles independently, but allowing both narratives to grow together makes for integrated story telling.
Even when I’m not responsible for the art for my article, I usually take along a camera for visual note taking. Rather than writing down that the parachute was red–or was it purple with green stripes?–the camera captures that and other small details to review later on. My stories often directly deal with some element of design, but even when they don’t, describing visual details helps a scene come alive.