Ella Dickinson has spent the last six years working as a visual storyteller and writer on assignments for local and international charities, and is currently based in the UK working for Compassion UK. You might remember her from an interview we did a few months ago after she had created the Any Girl Exhibition! But she’s back with more, and this time she’s teaching us all we need to know about how taking photos that can have a huge impact on the world! Let’s go…
Sometimes there are stories not only worth telling, but stories that need telling. Stories that can bring transformation, hope and healing. Over the last few years I’ve had many chances to tell those kinds of stories from all over the world. There are few things I love more than being immersed in a different culture, with people to meet, my camera in hand and a story full of purpose and potential to capture.
Before I get in to it, I want to share this quote as, for me, this is the foundation of all of my work and whenever I think of new projects and ideas I think of this:
“…show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become… The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.
I’ve always felt that it is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all of the stories of that place and that person. The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasises how we are different rather than how we are similar.” – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Here are my five top tips for those of you that want to use your photography to make a difference:
Enjoy capturing the beauty of humanity and the world
People’s stories are not as different to yours as you might think. Most of us experience the beauty of friendship, the pain of loss and loneliness and the tenderness of love at some point in our lives. These things translate across continents and cultures. If you can knit these themes into your photographs, good job.
Sometimes photographing the simple everyday things is much more effective than focussing on the extraordinary or bigger issue at hand: the smile of a proud grandma, a father preparing breakfast for his children, sisters plaiting each other’s hair, a boy doing his homework by candlelight.
Your photographs have power
Not the You-can-achieve-personal-greatness-with-this-image power, but more This-image-can-bring-transformation-to-this-situation power. Your images have the potential to be hugely influential. They can feed a hungry family, start a business for an entrepreneur, send a girl to school so that she won’t be forced into underage marriage, conserve a rainforest or protect a near-extinct breed of jellyfish. Your images can end up as legal evidence in law courts, be used to reconcile disconnected families and change national policies on a government level. Powerful, hey?
“You are a voice to the voiceless” – I sometimes have a problem with this idea. I believe every single human being has a personal, unique voice and is capable of using it to share their own story in their own way. Photographs have a powerful way of telling a story on someone’s behalf, when people may be silenced by circumstances, oppression or disability. It is a privilege to be able to photograph someone else’s story; I have no right to it. The people I photograph still have a voice.
But…you don’t necessarily always have the power. Often, I have to entrust my work to a skilled team who knows how to best use them to support a cause, a person or an organisation.
Emotional expressions can be more important than technically perfect images
You may have to move quickly and shoot as you move. On one assignment, I had to move from harsh desert sun into tiny, windowless, pitch-black homes with split seconds to capture a moment or expression. You won’t always have the time or equipment to produce exquisite images and sometimes a spontaneous smile is more precious than a sharp image, and a tender hug or touch is more precious than good composition. You won’t always get it perfect; just learn to roll with it.
The legal and ethical bit
It’s important to ask someones permission before taking any photos of them, and if they are a child you will need permission from their parent or guardian.
You should also bear in mind sensitive messaging standards for whatever country or region you are in and when it’s appropriate to photograph your subject so that they remain anonymous.
If you want some more detailed guidelines on this, well established international charities like WaterAid and Unicef have detailed and extensive Ethical Image Policies.
Give something back
It’s crucial to treasure your subjects. They are sharing their lives and stories with you. I have a camera and many of the people I photograph, have never been photographed before, and definitely have no way of ever owning a camera. I get to keep images of them and they won’t own a single image of themselves. I don’t want them to feel like I am just coming and going, leaving with their story, but I want to leave them with something of themselves too.
Take a polaroid camera with you, or a battery-charged portable printer (more cost effective) or if you are working somewhere over multiple days, get prints produced at a local printers and return with them.
In the darkest of situations a gift like this goes an enormously long way in bringing value and hope into someone’s life.