Getting access to a story isn’t a simple task, and for students it can be the most intimidating part of reporting. Your approach is vital to securing access: the way you present yourself and your ability to pitch your idea to your subject.
Jasper Rischen is a current graduate student at Columbia Journalism School. For his first photo project at the school, he captured the day in the life of a transgender performer, nightlife host and dominatrix. In just a few days and a couple of Facebook messages, he was able to negotiate almost unlimited access with his subject, Jordan Fox. He describes his experience and lists some tips.
Why did you decide to follow Fox for this project?
I immediately thought about her when my photo professor said that this project had to be really visually interesting. I did some night photography in New York City and I remember seeing her out there.
How did you get in touch with her?
I looked her up on Facebook and I saw that we have a really good friend in common. I sent her a Facebook message. I told her that I’d seen her a couple of times, and I mentioned our friend in common. I told her about the project and I did say that it was for Columbia University. Also, my friend reached out to her and told her about me.
How did she respond?
She seemed a little hesitant. She said that she would usually never let someone get that close. I said that I would send her the pictures. I told her that initially it was for school, but Columbia is such a big platform that it could become something bigger.
What happened on your first day of shooting?
She was doing her make up when I got there. It was definitely a really visually interesting moment but I didn’t start shooting right away. Instead, I chatted with her for a while. I explained the ground rules for the day. I said that she should pretend that I wasn’t there. I also told her that if I became intrusive in any way she should let me know. You don’t want to be in her face all the time.
How much time did you spend with her?
From noon until 6 in the morning. I left briefly for dinner.
What was the hardest part of this project?
Making it clear [to Fox] that it was a documentary photography project and not a regular photo shoot.
What’s your biggest takeaway from this experience?
You really have to build trust before you start shooting, and you should never start shooting right away.
Any last tips or suggestions?
See who is in your extended network. That could really help to gain the trust. It really helped that we had a friend in common that could put a good word in for me.