Photojournalist Glenna Gordon’s work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Time, Newsweek, London Times, Foreign Policy, Observer, BBC, Reuters, AFP, Guardian, Christian Science Monitor, MS Magazine, Walrus Magazine, Marie Claire (CZ), Associated Press (AP), just to name a few.
She regularly photographs for international nonprofit organizations such as UNICEF, USAID, and UNESCO. She has been living in Africa (primarily Uganda and Liberia) since 2006 and maintains the blog, Scarlett Lion.
In October 2009, Glenna along with colleague Jina Moore received a grant to work on a project about renewed justice, including an investigative piece about a copyrighted law code, a cover story for Christian Science Monitor about land conflicts, and a multimedia package for World Vision about prosecuting rape.
How long have you been a professional photographer?
I sold my first picture to the Associated Press in October 2007. Before that, I had been working for a local paper in Uganda. I kept working there for a bit after that, but also contributed to AP more and more and started freelancing regularly.
I moved to Liberia in 2009, where I’m still based. I’ve been able to do a lot of work here – I now string for AFP and am an active and (thankfully!) busy freelancer.
What – or who – got your initial interest going in terms of photography?
I actually never thought I would be a photographer. I wanted to be a writer. And I didn’t even want to be a journalist, I wanted to write fiction. But then I realized the world outside my own head was more interesting than the one in it, and then I realized that pictures could communicate something about the world that words couldn’t.
What were your first photographic experiments or experiences?
In college, I took a couple of black and white film photography classes. Some of my first photos were of pigeons and old men sitting around on the wharf in San Francisco. I loved film and the dark room, and I still really miss it, but I also think it’s not practical for the way I’m working now.
I hope to one day be able to use film and do some of my own printing again.
How would you describe the work you do now…obviously there’s a strong reportage element to it, but are you involved in the commercial world also? Any stock photography?
Right now I think of my work in three categories: documentary, editorial, and NGO/institutional. The documentary work is my own projects that I’m pursuing that (hopefully) really show my voice as a photographer and reflect what I want to say about the places I’ve been.
The editorial work ranges from wire photographs – anything from rainforests to politicians – and different newspapers or magazines contacting me in search of specific stories – anything from airport security training to maternal health. This is where the bulk of my professional output is.
The NGO work is where the bulk of my income comes from. (More on that in the next question.) Ultimately, I’d like to be spending more and more time on documentary work and hope that the editorial assignments I get will reflect my interest in longer-term projects and reportage.
At the moment, I don’t do any stock or commercial work. I should be selling more of my images as stock, but the problem is that I’m always more interested in taking new photos than selling old ones. But it’s on my to-do list. I haven’t done commercial work but I wouldn’t mind trying if the opportunity arises because I’d love to be able to expand my visual vocabulary like that.
What 3 tips would you share for amateur photographers who are interested in pursuing your style of photojournalism?
1) Go somewhere that there aren’t other photographers but there is media interest. For me, this was Liberia. Because there weren’t many (or at times any) other snappers around, I got a ton of assignments and was able to advance professionally and accrue some great tearsheets.
2) Buy the best equipment that you can afford, but then don’t spend all your time thinking about that one piece of equipment that would make your work so much better. There’s always going to be some piece of equipment that you want and don’t own, but you can’t use that as an excuse for not doing good work. (Note to self: stop spending time online ogling the Mamiya website).
3) Get a website and a blog and spend a good amount of time putting your work up. If a tree falls in the forest…
You work with a lot of non-profits like UNICEF, UNESCO, and USAID. Can you share a little bit more about this? What makes it exciting/challenging?
I like the NGO work because I like taking photos, but I ultimately tend to prefer to do editorial or my own projects. When you’re working for an organization, your job as a photographer is to create images that reflect the message the organization is trying to communicate. There’s nothing wrong with that, but for me the most exciting part of taking photos is knowing where I’m going but not where I’ll end up.
Non-profit work, however, is still incredibly important to me – and not just because it’s the bulk of my income. There are great things about it– I often to get to work with incredibly dedicated people whose focus I find inspiring and invigorating.
Which other photographers – old or contemporary – inspire you most?
Um, where do I start?
I love Tim Hetherington’s Liberia work and that was part of what made me want to move to Liberia in the first place. Lyndsey Addario’s work in Darfur and Congo almost makes me want to be a conflict photographer (but not really).
Ami Vitale’s work from Kashmir is so incredibly beautiful – she has this one photo of some military looking men in these crazy decorated boats floating on water so still it reflects the sky and makes the space surreal and beautiful.
Zackary Canepari has this amazing series of portraits of circus performers in their homes in Dehli slums that really shows you can tell a story through portraits alone.
In terms of older photographers, I love Malik Sidibie and Seidou Keita and how they portray a time of optimism in Africa. Another one of my favorites is the Hungarian photographer Andre Kertez.
At a used bookstore in New York, I once found a small and beautifully printed compilation of his photos of people reading. It was one of the first photography books I ever purchased.
I also spend a lot of time trawling the web and photo websites and there are some less well known people whose work I really love (and everyone reading this should google!) so just to name a few: Marc Wattrelot, Jan Banning, Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre, Ken Light, Alfredo Bini, Marieke Van Der Velden, Chris Saunders, Wayne Lawrence.
When you are approaching subjects to shoot, how do you set about it? Do you chat and explain what you’re doing? Or shoot first, ask questions later?
I always ask people permission before I take their photos, even if it’s just a quick nonverbal communication where I gesture to my camera as a question and wait for a nod.
Ultimately, I prefer to engage with people and think that this creates the best photos. There are a lot of people who think you’ll miss that one great candid street shot if you wait and ask first, but the truth is that I don’t do all that much street shooting anyway and I never got that one great street shoot.
I think the best photos are where the subject acknowledges the photographer and gives permission for a photo rather than when a photographer takes it without asking.
9. What’s the craziest or most inspiring encounter you’ve had in general?
I’ve spent a huge amount of time at the Ducor Hotel in Monrovia, Liberia. It was once a four star resort, and then a home for squatters during the war.
The government kicked most of them out but now a couple still remain. I’d been going there regularly for quite awhile when this older gentleman named Emanuel, who used to work at the hotel, told me he wanted me to record him singing a song.
I didn’t have an audio equipment with me that day, so I promised to come back. I had bad timing so the next couple of times I went back he wasn’t around, but then finally he was.
And we went off into one of the old hotel room and he sang me this song he had written, tapping a three-four beat out as accompaniment.
And I just sat there thinking, I have the most amazing job in the world.
10. What kit do you use / carry with you / can’t do without (camera make, lenses, flashguns etc.)?
I carry two Canon 5D bodies, a 35 mm lens, a 50 mm lens, and a 24-70 zoom lens. I have a flash but I almost never use it. I prefer to work with available light. I generally use both fixed lens at the same time, but if I’m in a situation where I think I’ll need more flexibility I’ll use the zoom lens and one of my two fixed lenses. I have a tripod too, but carry it only occasionally.
11. Finally, what else are you working on right now and what are your ambitions for the future in terms of your photography work or anything else?
I really hope to continue to develop as a photographer and work on more documentary and long term projects. I was recently working on one project where I knew I needed a couple more images of certain specific things, and I found it hard to be motivated to go out and shoot.
But then on another recent project, snapping at the Ducor Hotel, I couldn’t ever revisit this one place too many times. I could go back every day for months and not get bored.
That’s the kind of thing I want to do – work on projects where I like the project so much I feel like I could never finish it. That doesn’t usually pay the bills, so I’ll probably stick with my current model and continue to try and change how I distribute my time.
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Lola (Akinmade) Åkerström
Lola (Akinmade) Åkerström is a MatadorU faculty member and Network contributor. Her work has appeared in National Geographic Traveler, Vogue, BBC, Fodors.com, and many more. Follow her photoblog at Sweden.se.
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