How to prepare for a shoot as a photojournalist

Award-winning journalist and photographer, Kate Holt shares her checklist for preparing for a shoot.

By Kate Holt

Kate in Mogadishu, Somalia, 2011.

I have been a photojournalist for twenty years. No two shoots are ever the same, and over the years I have developed a personal checklist that I run through. Here are a few.

Check your kit before every shoot

– and make sure you have thought through the particular scenes you may photograph that day. It is sometimes hard to know what you may encounter in a day’s work, but it is important to plan and think through what may arise. I always look at the weather forecast and think about how this may affect what I need.

I was in the DR Congo a few months ago and it was rainy season, which can be very unpredictable. Every morning I checked to see whether rain was forecast; even if it was bright sunshine when I set out, that could change very quickly, so I ensured I had a waterproof jacket with me and some plastic bags to cover my cameras if I got caught in a shower. Because I wasn’t sure what the lighting conditions would be in the communities we were going to, I also took a bounce in case it got very dark.

Know the background to your subject

Reading your brief and any background information on your subject can really help bring context and depth to your photographs. Through understanding the political, economic and social context of the country you are working in, you will notice more elements of daily life and can bring these into your photographs to add to the storyline.

On a shoot in South Sudan last year I was taking the portrait of a young mother called Akujang, who was only 15 years old. While photographing her and her baby in their Toukal (mud hut), I noticed a sharp spear propped up on the wall behind her. She told me how her husband’s job was to protect their cattle from wild animals, and that on several occasions they had witnessed fighting as a result of the ongoing war. The spear in the background served as a visual reference to this daily violence.

Teenage girls who have been affected by war and food insecurity pose for photographs at their homes near the town of Rumbek Town, South Sudan.

Cover all bases.

Very often it will take days and huge logistical challenges to reach the subject you need to photograph. A lot of planning, organisation and cost goes into photography assignments and I am acutely aware of this while photographing. While I am working, I am thinking of every possible shot that may be needed to illustrate a story. I think of the different types of photos – portraits that show different emotions, and contextual shots. I will shoot inside and outside to get different lighting situations and think of the elements from daily life that can help to illustrate a story. You can’t go back – so it’s worth spending time to get more than you need.

Understand your purpose.

Why are you photographing a certain situation and what do you hope to portray through taking someone’s image and showing it to other people? I always spend a few moments before a shoot aligning myself with the subject, and the reason I have been sent there. Why am I there?

Earlier this year I was in Papua New Guinea, photographing a story around vaccinations and polio for UNICEF. Keeping one’s motivation up on a shoot of this length is hard, especially as a lot of the subject matter one is photographing – children receiving a polio vaccination – can start to look very similar after a while. So I reminded myself every morning that the purpose of the shoot was to convey the extreme conditions the health workers were operating in; how hard it was to get the vaccines to the children; the need to get the vaccines to the children; and the dire consequences – of disability for life – if the children didn’t get the vaccines. This motivated me to look for images that would have impact, and to shoot in as creatively as possible to bring the story to life.

Polio vaccinators from the Papua New Guinea Ministry of Health vaccinate children and then mark their finger to show they have received their vaccine, Papua New Guinea, 2019.

Don’t get too emotionally involved.

Some of the scenes we come across, often when we least expect it, can be devastatingly sad. Do your best to capture the scene with as much dignity as possible and show respect and compassion for your subject. It is important to tell these stories, no matter how hard it may be.

I remember photographing a woman in South Sudan who had been horrifically beaten by her husband. She wanted to show me her scars and wanted me to photograph them. I did this as sensitively as possible – knowing how much trust she was investing in me to get her story out there.

Register to attend our Telling Stories with Photographs Workshop

If you are interested in learning more about photojournalism, Kate Holt will be running One World Media x Arete Storie’s Telling Stories with Photographs Workshop in October.