The key to telling powerful stories with your photographs

Award-winning photojournalist Kate Holt describes her work on a challenging project in South Sudan, and breaks down some of the techniques she used to tell powerful stories with her photographs.


In March 2018, Plan International UK contacted me asking if I would be interested in photographing a project about teenage girls caught up in the hunger crisis in South Sudan. The images would be used as part of an exhibition at the Oxo Gallery in London looking at the day-to-day lives of girls growing up in the world’s youngest country.

I have a long-standing interest in South Sudan, having spent a year there in 2005 after the signing of the CPA and many subsequent trips with both The Guardian and UNICEF, so I was quick to accept the offer.

A month later, I flew into Juba and travelled with a UN flight to Rumbek to meet with the girls I would be working with.

Whilst the capital city of Juba had gotten bigger since I was last in South Sudan, little had changed for the families I was about to meet. Societal expectations, as well as the problems that plague the world’s youngest country, severely limited their choices.

However, for such young people, they were incredibly brave. They were carving out their lives with passion and ambition in one of the harshest environments possible, caught between the problems of hunger, war and the threat of forced marriage.

Of the nine girls I met, each had their own powerful and unique story to tell.


Take the time to listen and talk with the people you are photographing 

As well as the portraits and descriptive photos I would take, I also wanted to find out as much information about each girl’s story as possible. When I met each girl I would sit down and talk with them – asking them questions about their daily lives, hopes and fears.

It’s not always easy to gain people’s trust, but it’s important to be patient as this is a vital part of the storytelling process.

Helena, 16, fled with her family to escape fighting in her hometown of Abear. Before they fled all of the families possessions were stolen along with many of their cattle. Helena has never been to school as she has to look after the remaining cattle. “My biggest worry is what we are going to eat each day” she says. “My hope for the future is that I can go to school. If I could change one thing about my life it would be to go to school. “
Monica, 12,  lives with her mother, two brothers and two sisters in Rumbek, South Sudan but has no money for school fees. All the family’s money is going to her father who is in hospital. Monica is sometimes able to eat twice a day but the family is often hungry. “ When I am hungry my stomach hurts and I feel if I eat my body is stronger,” she says. “When I don’t eat it is weak”
















Pair your photographs with direct quotes or testimonials

The stories I gathered I wrote up into first person testimonies. I was then able to use direct quotes from the girls themselves to support the photographs in the exhibition and online gallery.

Pairing photos with a powerful, direct quote is a technique that I’ve used time and time again, to great effect. A photograph may speak a thousand words, but when it is paired with an authentic account of the person featured, it can resonate on a different level.

The exhibition at the Oxo Gallery was a great success. Over 1500 people visited the exhibition, lingering to read the stories of the girls and the context of South Sudan.

The photographs and stories were also featured in the Guardian. The direct quotes from the girls were crucial for crafting this gallery and is a further example of the importance of gathering a subject’s story as much as their image.


Written by Kate Holt

Kate is an award-winning writer and photographer. Kate trained as a journalist with the BBC before becoming a photographer. She has extensive experience of telling stories from very challenging environments and has taught a wide range of organisations how to take photographs, write stories and improve their communication skills, from African Union soldiers on the frontline in Mogadishu, to children in South Sudan.


Storytelling Through Photography Workshop

25 November + 2 December, 2020  |  3pm

Learn how to gather photographs that will tell powerful stories in this two-part course with award-winning photojournalist Kate Holt.