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How A Pulitzer Prize-Winning Photojournalist Connects With Tough Subjects

by Nicoal Price
photo & video

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Photo credit: Deanne Fitzmaurice for the San Francisco Chronicle

Pulitzer Prize winner Deanne Fitzmaurice is a confident, compassionate, and curious documentary photographer. Her boldness helped her launch her successful career. When Deanne was starting out, she always found creative ways of gaining access to otherwise off-limits people and venues. Today, as an experienced photojournalist, she continues to capture intimate stories by knowing how to break down barriers.

Early in her career, Deanne was the first reporter to gain the trust of Barry Bonds, who had a general distrust of all media and photographers at the time. In her creativeLIVE course, Documentary Storytelling & Photojournalism, she shares the story of how his initial rejection of her request to photograph him turned into a series of groundbreaking, intimate portraits of the pro baseball star’s home and personal life. The following are the three kinds of human interaction Deanne credits for her success in building trust with her subjects:

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Photo credit: Deanne Fitzmaurice for the San Francisco Chronicle

Connect

Many of Deanne’s connections begin with nothing more than small talk. If you want a subject to see you as a person worthy of their trust rather than just another reporter with a camera, you must earn that trust through being honest and real. Build a portfolio of stories and experiences that illustrate your journalistic credibility and professionalism. Show your subjects how graciously you will portray them and that you want to help them tell their story.

Additionally, show your curiosity by learning more about each person and their experience and interests.

Even if you don’t speak the same language as your subject, you can make a real connection. Talk with him or her through an interpreter. Use body language to connect. Show them your pictures. Laugh together. A simple smile is often enough to establish a bond.

Build Relationships

If people trust you, they will help you. Deanne’s most compelling stories come from gaining the trust of people around her. She values relationship-building and knows that everyone matters — and she makes sure to treat everyone with respect. Build a friendship with a security guard, for example, and he or she may let you have access to a restricted area. You never know how people around you will help.

If the person you want to photograph is reluctant to be photographed or otherwise inaccessible, find a go-between person who your desired subject knows and trusts. Ask for permission through this trusted go-between person, and your subject is more likely to say yes.

Persevere

Don’t give up too soon. It takes time and patience to establish rapport and trust. Keep telling your intended subject how important their story is and how much you and others need to understand that story. Show them you are genuinely curious and have good intentions. But don’t push too hard. There’s a fine line between perseverance and harassing your subject to the point where the will shut you out completely.

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Photo credit: Deanne Fitzmaurice for the San Francisco Chronicle

Be Bold

Walking up to someone and asking permission is intimidating. But sometimes that’s all it takes to get a “yes” from your subject. Get over the fear of rejection, and start talking to the people you hope to photograph.

Photojournalists like Deanne Fitzmaurice often face barriers to working with their subjects. Many people are reluctant to share their intimate stories with reporters. To gain trust and get access to important stories, you must create genuine connections. With patience and confidence, you can turn a no into a yes.

 

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Nicoal Price

​Nicoal is a freelance writer and photographer with a penchant for learning as much as possible. Her imagery ranges from nature-inspired portraiture to outdoor product photography. Connect with her at nicoalprice.com.