I get questions like these daily, mostly from inexperienced or new photojournalists who want to get into documentary photography. I often repeat the same answers, so I figured it might be useful to put it all into a single article. So, here are the bare basics of high-risk documentary photography.
Note: we do not recommend that anyone not acting in an official capacity take part in these activities.
There is no reason to question you about your personal or professional reasons as to why you would want to even consider traveling to an active warzone to shoot a few photographs. That is each and everyone’s personal battle to fight. But it most definitely helps to know the reasons. You don’t want to find yourself in a situation where you have to be 100% present in the moment, otherwise your life could be at risk, thinking, “What the hell am I even doing here?” Figure it out before you even plan on departing your home country.
There can, of course, be wrong reasons to pursue this kind of photography. If you’re ever interested in capturing people at their most vulnerable for fame, money, clout, or attention, you’re doing it for all the wrong reasons. Photojournalists are already often labeled hyenas of the photography industry as many people assume we thrive on suffering. And while that may be true for some I personally try to do my utmost to be as respectful of the photographed as possible.
But let’s move on. You’ve got your whys sorted out and are ready to begin planning your first journey.
Plan, Research, and Prepare
I can’t stress this enough. It is not only inconsiderate but it can be downright dangerous to go to a different country in turmoil without doing your research beforehand. Learn at least the basics of the local culture, what is taboo in the local society, and a few phrases in the language can’t hurt. Read up on the political situation, and find out what you can about the warring sides. You do not want to get caught up in a situation where you do not know what is going on. If you’re interviewing locals it can help you a ton if you know what they are talking about. I was once in a country with another photographer who had no idea what side we were on and who we were traveling with. The impression that leaves with the people you’re trying to capture will only make them distant from you, and the photographs will come out worse for that.
Having meaningful conversations with the people you’re capturing, living with, and/or traveling with and showing you understand their struggles can help tremendously when you want to get honest, candid, and interesting photographs. In the end, it is all about showing respect. And not just to make your job easier, but to help future journalists coming in. You don’t want to leave a wrong impression.
Sometimes, getting caught in an active warzone with a map and a GPS is terrible news. It can be a search at a checkpoint or a random stop in the city. The last thing you want is to be labeled a spy. Familiarize yourself with the area you’re going to beforehand. Learn the geography. Find out how to move around safely and efficiently. That leads me to the next point.
Get official accreditation. Walking around a martial law and militarized country with a bunch of camera gear with no official accreditation is just begging to be, at best, thrown out of the country immediately. You can be imprisoned, tried for espionage, and even convicted with punishments as severe as the death penalty in some countries. Sometimes, it can take months to be accredited, and there are those who wing it regardless of the risks. Better to be safe than sorry. Plan ahead.
What Is a Fixer?
I have personally only used a fixer for one of my multiple trips. But it was much needed, and the help received was irreplaceable. A fixer is a local, often a journalist themselves, who can translate for you, guide you through the country, who can help you when it comes to reaching out to the local authorities, and help you when it comes to the way you approach people. Even something as simple as having a basic chat with a soldier posted at a checkpoint can be done extremely differently if you have a friendly local with you.
Fixers can be expensive, though. They’re most often paid for by big publishing houses, large newspapers, or news crews. Fixers are rarely attainable for a freelancer working with a tight budget. That is one of the reasons I used one only once. It was well worth the money, though.
Obtaining a fixer is not necessarily tricky. You just need to know where to look. Worldfixer.com is a site I used to find my fixer, but you can try other means, like the vulture club on Facebook or similar groups. One thing you have to do is cross-reference your fixer and make sure they can be trusted. Ask them for references, look at their previous work, and inquire about their previous employers. Once you’re in a foreign country and your fixer is your only guide, source of information, translator, or even a driver, you are entirely at their mercy. And that can go wrong in many ways. There are horror stories of journalists being sold out by their fixers to various militias and other armed groups for money. But those cases are rare. Fixers mainly work as journalists themselves, and when you hire one, they can help you tell a story in a way you just would not be able to do by yourself.
Training, Training, and More Training
I cannot stress this enough. Do not go to a conflict area or to a war-torn county without knowing exactly what to do when things get serious. Do you know how to save your life when you lose an arm to a piece of shrapnel? Do you know how to treat a sucking chest wound? Have you got any idea how to fix an open fracture? What is the first thing you do when you find yourself in a minefield? These questions not only affect your life but everyone else around you as well. You can easily get not just yourself killed but your companions as well. I’ve seen too much reckless behavior done by inexperienced people in warzones, so now, I mainly avoid working with others and just go by myself rather than risk suffering due to someone else’s incompetence.
It can even be the simplest act of not stepping on the grass in a region known for being shelled daily. A small and hard-to-see butterfly mine can change your life forever. Take a RISC or a HEFAT course, learn combat awareness basics, practice field triage and first aid, and, for the love of everything dear, get tourniquets! I always make sure to have two easily reachable tourniquets on my body armor: one in my pocket and one on my camera bag. Severe blood loss can cause you to lose consciousness within seconds. You need to act fast and without thinking. There is no time to run to your car, no time to reach too far, and no time to ask a friend to hand you one. Grab the closest tourniquet and use it. Applying one is a simple operation you can practice even on your own once you get the correct instructions.
Staying calm is key. Acting stressed out, panicking, and making everyone else around you feel like you should not be there is a sure way to be left behind when things get hectic.
Another example of an important reflex to have is to cover your ears and open your mouth when there’s an explosion nearby. If you have a little more time to react turn away from where you think the explosion is going to happen and get down on your elbows and knees. Keep your stomach off the ground. All of this is recommended for a simple reason. Humans are very liquid. And the last thing you want is to have your body be impacted by the shockwaves more than it can take. Doing all I’ve mentioned at the start of this paragraph can have a major impact on your lungs, hearing, and pretty much all of your internal organs. Shockwaves travel, bounce, multiply, and the pressure builds up, and just the simple act of opening your mouth lets a lot of that pressure out and protects your body from the inside.
I’ve been asked this often: “Aren’t you afraid?” My answer is always the same. You usually do not have time to be afraid. That comes later once you’re safe again, when the adrenaline is gone and you’ve had time to process what has actually happened. You want to be taken seriously when you’re trying to capture humans in these situations. Showing up to a military position visibly scared and shaken from the gunfire and other dangers around you is a sure way of not being able to follow whichever group you’re trying to photograph. Nobody is going to risk having a liability with them in the trench. Calm down and focus on the reason you’re there. You’ve got a job to do.
That being said, use common sense. Taking unnecessary risks is rarely worth it. Know your limits.
Many authorities won’t even let you work as a journalist in their country without correct PPE. I’m, of course, talking about Personal Protective Equipment. The essential elements are a ballistic vest and a helmet. There are many different types of vests: overt, covert, plate carriers, or shrapnel vests, each for a different situation and use. Some prefer as much protection as possible, wrapping themselves in full shrapnel vests with plates covering their sides, shoulders, crotch, and neck at the cost of mobility.
I personally only use a smaller plate carrier with level IV kevlar/ceramic composite plates on the front and back. My lower abdomen, sides, and neck are exposed, but I get better mobility. I understand the risks, but once you travel in a van cabin with three other people and have to enter and exit fast, you are willing to sacrifice some protection to keep your sanity. There is nothing more annoying than getting stuck in a car when you have to get out ASAP. A helmet is an easy choice. A simple level III PASGT will not cost a ton and should do the trick.
When it comes to design, there is one thing you want to avoid. Skip all the “tacticool” gear and strive for being clearly distinguishable as either a civilian or a journalist. You do not want to be mistaken for a combatant. Avoid using combat boots, military jackets, camo patterns, or surplus equipment. The only exception would be if you were embedded with a military unit following their every step and living with them. Those journalists often used the same uniforms and body armor except for clearly visible press patches. It makes sense. If you follow a squad sneaking through a forest, you don’t want to stand out with a bright red shirt and a blue helmet. If the key is to stay hidden, do so. But make sure you are still distinguishable as a journalist should you get spotted and/or captured.
Unfortunately, in this day and age, information is often considered undesirable, and there are many cases of journalists being targeted and even killed for the simple fact of delivering true information. Last time I was on a frontline following a small group of fighters, I was asked to take my large “PRESS” patch off of my back and put it in my pocket. According to their words, that patch would have made me a prime target. I’m sure you’re familiar with the story of Marie Colvin and her death in the Syrian city of Homs, where she was deliberately targeted. This needs to be considered when you are planning on traveling into war zones where there are some sides or regimes known for aggressively suppressing free speech.
Prepare Yourself and Your Family or Employer
Before you leave your home country, make sure you’ve got everything sorted. Your passport cannot expire while you’re away. Your press pass or accreditation has to be valid. Don’t rely on the originals only. Have a photocopied version of your passport stored safely and physically on you as well as a digital copy, which is easy to find. If you can, memorize the most important phone numbers like your family or employer. Know how to contact your embassy if you get in trouble, and let them know you’re in the country beforehand if it is recommended.
Another essential document to prepare could be your Proof of Life. This is a document with information only you yourself and your appointed contact back home knows. It will be used to confirm you are still alive in the case of a kidnapping. It can be a series of easily memorizable questions and answers that cannot be guessed or information that nobody knows and can’t look up. Imagine any potential kidnapper trying to extort your close ones saying they have you captured. The only way to confirm it is really you and that you are still alive is through this document.
What About Camera Gear?
“Gear doesn’t matter,” you hear often. And, for the most part, I agree, if you’re a hobbyist street photographer walking around London snapping tourist candids or if you’re just an enthusiast portrait photographer. But, if you are in a life-threatening scenario and the sole reason for your being there is to take photographs and tell a story, you better have camera equipment that you know you can count on to take a beating and work unless there’s a bullet in it.
You also want to have something to show once you get back home and start working on your captures, so I think it is a must to have the ability to shoot on multiple memory cards at once. A single card slot camera is just asking for lost files. Weather-sealing is a no-brainer. There is no time to worry about pouring rain, falling in a meter of snow, getting covered in mud, working in negative 20 degrees Celsius, or banging your camera against the door frame of an armored truck you’re trying to jump into as fast as possible. There is a reason photographers in the past used simple and mostly mechanical cameras like the Leica M6, Nikon F, and similar.
Nowadays, the cameras of choice often include beasts like the 1D X series from Canon, D5/D6 from Nikon, or other top-level large and heavy bodies. It does not have to be this way for everyone, though. Smaller and lighter cameras can often be built just as well, with great image quality and tough features. I personally have always used Fujifilm bodies like the X-Pro2, X-T1, X-T2, X-Pro3, and similar, all the way to the current X-T5. The image quality is more than enough, the speed of the cameras has never hindered me in any way, and the way they are built is just incredible, especially the X-Pro2, which I reviewed in an article called Still a Brilliant Choice Seven Years Later: Fujifilm X-Pro2 Re-Review. This is not to mention the weight-saving benefits over a set of 1D X bodies each with a lens. And you most definitely need at least, two as you never know what is going to happen. Backups are key.
In terms of durability, I can also imagine going for the new OM-1 from OM System (or any E-M1 from Olympus for that matter), or a Pentax DSLR. Some of my acquaintances are even going back to shooting fully mechanical analog cameras due to their sheer reliability in any conditions. Some of the best documentary work throughout history has been shot on film, so I can understand the idea. Just look at the 20th-century works of Sir Don McCullin, James Nachtwey, Patrick Chauvel, or W. Eugene Smith.
So, yeah. On one hand, gear really does not matter, as long as it can get the job done and survive. If it does not break the bank and your back, that is even better. Just make sure you know it inside out. Be ready to use it blindfolded. Important moments and events happen in a blink of an eye, and you do not want to be fiddling with the settings when you should be photographing. Set your camera in a way you rarely ever have to visit the menus. Just make it simple, fast, and don’t be afraid to speed your process up by going aperture or shutter priority. Manual is for those who have the luxury of enough time. Unless manual is faster for you. Just don’t let your camera be in the way of you and the shot.
Other Necessary Equipment
It does not matter where you are going, you need to be ready to survive whatever situation you find yourself in. I never count on my surroundings and comforts. Have a way of sleeping comfortably. Just a simple bivvy and a quilt on the bottom of your bag lets you spend the night pretty much anywhere without being a burden to others. Dress warm for the winter, don’t overdress for summer. This is basic stuff, but it can save your life. Always, and I mean always, have some water on you or a means of getting safe drinking water. You have to stay hydrated. A sturdy metal bottle is going to be your best friend.
In terms of food, I often went local and bought whatever was available. That isn’t always possible, though, so I keep some quick snacks in my bag, which can keep me functioning for at least a day or two: simple stuff like dried cranberries, maybe an energy bar or two, some nuts — small and lightweight food reserved for when I cannot find anything else to eat.
You have to have a trauma kit! There is no other way around it. An easily accessible and fully stocked first aid kit will come with a spare tourniquet, a field dressing, Celox tape, safety scissors, some bandages, a chest wound seal, disposable gloves, leukotape, and a disinfectant. Other medicinal equipment to have on you could be over-the-counter painkillers, diarrhea relief, wet wipes, talc, a thermal blanket, and a shemagh or a similar multi-purpose scarf. Most of this, you hope never need to use, but you don’t want to be caught without it when you do need it.
Last but not least is charging equipment for my cameras or enough spare batteries, including multiple smaller memory cards which I swap often, instead of a single huge one, to prevent data loss. I usually rock a few 32 GB cards mixed with some 64 GB cards for backup. It is a lot safer alternative to a pair of 256 GB cards.
Find a way to stay sane. There is a lot of waiting and doing nothing. Oftentimes, you could spend days just not having anything to do. I usually take a book with me to occupy myself during these periods of quiet. Just make sure it’s not a massive hardback with thousands of pages. The key is to travel light, after all.