A freelancer’s thoughts on collaboration

My reporting partner, Amelia, on the Honduran coast.

There are photographers and journalists who are true lone wolves. I know a few. They shine most brightly on their own and flourish when they push themselves in ways more amplified than when that push comes from others.

I can relate to elements of this. It’s been ten years since I’ve been in a newsroom, and at this point it’s difficult to conceive of going back. Most freelancers will say that freedom, more than anything, is one of the great payoffs of working independently, despite the notorious insecurity that it comes with.

But freelancing is also isolating. Not only in the day-to-day loneliness that can come with it, but in the space you occupy in a society that’s structured around a 40-hour work week. It can be a difficult life for others to relate to. It is also, without a doubt, a choice of privilege. Voluntarily opting for a life of stressful financial insecurity is not a choice everyone can make, and I’m beyond grateful I’m able to do so.

It’s taken me years to understand and articulate just how much I thrive on collaboration. Even when on assignments, collaborative conversations are rare.  The times I’ve been able to tackle a story as a true part of a duo or team are, hands down, always the most fulfilling. When I applied for this fellowship, I knew I wanted to do so with a partner. I wanted a second brain to make my ideas better, inspire me with their own, hash out strategy and digest the mountain of information I’d be trying to absorb. I feel insanely lucky to have had a talented friend in Amelia agree to sign on.  She provided all those things and more, most notably endless hours of delirious laughter and motherly reminders to take my anti-malarial meds.

This fellowship was astutely managed to take the best parts of being in a newsroom and applied it to an independent scenario. I’ve rarely had the luxury of talking through my daily progress with a room full of interested minds, eager to share ideas and give feedback. And though in the past I’d done projects in countries that were previously unfamiliar to me, this was my first time working with fixers. While I was aware of their value in theory, I’m not sure I could have conceived of the level of collective and individual wisdom our fixers provided. Their generosity and support, without the faintest hint of territorial defensiveness, was astounding to me and has left me committed to prioritizing fixers for relevant future work. The worst thing I can say about the team we’ve worked with is that I fear they’ve set an impossibly high bar.

It’s not a given that collaboration will always provide better results, and a group dynamic doesn’t work for everyone. But one of my biggest takeaways will be a renewed hunger for being a part of a team, in whatever capacity is available to me as a freelancer, as well as my confidence within one. It’s been a confirmation that going it together is better than going it alone.

– Celia Talbot Tobin, Fall 2018 Guatemala Reporting Fellow