Getting Closer on the Ground

The best part of an international reporting trip is getting on the ground (sometimes literally) and talking to everyday people about what is happening in their country. But a close second is doing so with a cohort of smart, courageous, empathetic journalists. Sometimes fellowships like these are just as valuable for the long car rides you spend chatting with your peers–especially for a freelancer like me, not often around journalism colleagues.

So I was thrilled to learn that several of my fellow fellows in Rwanda were experienced photographers. On one road trip, I asked Patricia Guerra for photography tips. She passed on advice that someone else had once given her: “Get closer.”

Get close enough to truly see a person–their freckles and their wrinkles, the way the sun catches their eyes. Getting close can cover a multitude of technical mistakes, she explained. The closer you can get, the better the photos will be.

The next time I raised my camera to my eye, Patricia’s words echoed in my head. I took a tentative step forward, and then another. Sure enough, the photos turned out much better than those taken from further away–they were richer, more nuanced, more beautiful.

But this advice doesn’t just apply to photography. It inspired me to dig deeper in my writing, too–to get a little closer, physically and emotionally, during interviews.

It’s hard, sometimes, to invade someone’s personal space. My natural inclination is to stand back meekly–to acknowledge that I’m here to take your time, to hear your story, but to ask for as little as possible in return. I rely on the generosity of people who stop rebuilding their homes or planting their gardens or hoeing their rice fields in order to spend time talking to me–and it can be overwhelming sometimes. I’m tempted to apologize, to give them distance, to be as unobtrusive as possible. And when I’m working in a new-to-me country, often with the help of fixers and translators to overcome language and cultural barriers, it can be hard to establish the connections that allow people to open up.

But get closer. The closer you get, the more you can see the nuance, the texture, the beautiful details. That is what we as journalists are there to do. Getting closer allows you to be more accurate, more honest, when you sit down to write your story. And telling someone’s story with richness and detail honors to the time they’ve spent with you.