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The power of visual storytelling

Georgina Smith is a photographer and journalist working in East Africa, and a former WRENmedia staff member. In this blog, she explains what initially drew her to take up photography, and the ongoing relevance of the medium to tell a story.

Georgina captures members of the Kyamaleera Woman’s Handicraft Association in north-western Uganda with new seed varieties

When I started out in my career, I knew that I wanted to be a journalist. For me, that meant capturing a moment through writing, then seeing it published in print or online. But at WRENmedia, my interest in photography grew. Although I had travelled with photographers before, I had never clicked the shutter myself.

On trips to China and Uganda with the WRENmedia team, I took my camera to capture what I saw. In China, I attended a global CGIAR conference in Beijing, and took photos of participants and of a tea-making ceremony. In Uganda, I went to visit an entrepreneur making organic potato crisps in his small factory. Instead of just interviewing him, I tried to capture the massive pans he used for frying up the crisps in pictures. I also started to explore photography more widely, and on a holiday to Amuru camp in Northern Uganda, I decided to make a photo feature for New Agriculturalist – a magazine WRENmedia was producing at the time.

I would unleash the results on my unsuspecting colleague, Neil Palmer. An excellent photographer with an uncanny ability to combine artistic skill, practical knowledge and topical relevance, he reviewed my awful offerings with patience and wit, offering encouragement and practical advice.

Neil’s knowledge of all thing’s photography inspired me to learn more. I asked lots of questions, like: “What’s an f/stop?” and “What does the aperture do?” He explained that the aperture controls the opening of a lens's diaphragm to let light in. It is calibrated in f/stops which generally go from f/1.4 to f/22. Confusingly, the bigger the f/stop number, the smaller the amount of light allowed in. The amount of light you let in controls the kind of picture you get.

The ability to capture something beautifully, and accurately, was alluring to me. Also, combined with that, the powerful storytelling combination of pictures and words is still what inspires me to click the shutter most.

Capturing a moment

The history of photography I find equally fascinating. It was in doing an MA in photojournalism at the London College of Communication that I discovered the ‘decisive moment.’ The concept, pioneered by the street photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson, involves capturing a moment of expression and movement, a piece of history that will never be repeated.

Despite the rise in video and film in stories, I believe the strength of photography lies in this static moment – and in distilling and capturing what is over in a second and a flash.

Most of the photos I take for organisations are posed to some extent. So that often entails being creative with what you are offered in the moment.

A photo I took in Ethiopia for the Africa Rising project was captured at midday when the sun was very harsh – probably the worst time of day to take photographs. The light sends powerful shadows across the subject and is generally unflattering. As we didn’t have any choice about the time of day, I used flash to take some of the shadow off the woman’s face and freeze the motion in the water being poured, also using the tin roof behind her to bounce more light.

I wanted to capture her at work on her farm, and to use the water to show movement. I was trying to capture both the water harvesting measures, which she was putting into place on her farm, while highlighting the work she had invested in creating and maintaining the homemade well.

Videographers look for movement, building their story in a progressive sequence. Photographers more often need one image which tells the whole story, sums up a point, makes a stark comparison or draws attention to a subject.

Investing in video?

I often wonder whether photographs will remain relevant in future, as the use of video seems to become more popular. But news organisations at least, point out that while video is important for social media audiences and major news events, in general, news sites rely less on video.

Perhaps this will change. The recent Reuters Institute analysis of online video news, ‘the future of online news video,’ notes that 79% of senior digital news leaders interviewed said they would be investing more in video in future. The report points out that, given the growing importance of social media as a source of news, the content and tone of news coverage continues to change.

But for now, at least, photos and text looks set to stay as a powerful form of storytelling.

Georgina Smith

To see more of Georgina’s photos, be sure to check out her website

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