“I define myself as a storyteller”

We spoke to visual journalist Kainaz Amaria about her journey from discovering photojournalism to finding her place at the multimedia desk at NPR.

CV: YOU WEAR A LOT OF HATS, CAN YOU EXPLAIN WHAT YOU DO?

KAINAZ AMARIA: I define myself as a storyteller, as an editor, and a producer. If someone asks about a certain project, I’ll say what I did, for instance, for the T-Shirt project I was a visual reporter, I was an editor, a producer and a project manager, a little bit of everything. That’s not the case in all projects, but that’s how I frame what I do is: telling good stories.

HOW DID YOU GET STARTED ?

KA: I studied international relations and political science during undergrad at Boston University where I graduated in 2000. I interned at law firms, I interned for senator Ted Kennedy, and tried to find a place in politics, but I actually really disliked politics in practice. After undergrad I moved to London for a few years and I kind of fell into a group of artists and photographers; that’s where I found photojournalism.

I came back to the US and I started interning at really small newspapers. The Palo Alto weekly, then the Menlo Park Almanac and the San Mateo Daily News. I mean these are painfully small weekly newspapers. And I supplemented my income by temping in the morning from 8 to noon, and then I’d go into the newspapers from 2 to 11. I did that for two years and I took every opportunity to understand photojournalism and the visual language.

I went to Eddie Adams and the Missouri workshop; I interned for Ed Kashi when he had a studio in San Francisco. That was me trying to figure out my own waters and then I went to Ohio University for grad school where I spent two years solely focusing on the visual language and the visual voice.

When I got a Fulbright to go to India for a year, I decided to stay and freelanced for US publications like NYT, Reuters and Bloomberg. That was also my first relationship with NPR. I worked on a project called The Grand Trunk Road, and then a couple years later they called and asked me if I wanted to join their team.

That was the progression of my career: a lot of head down, a lot of hustling, and adding on different languages along the way. I didn’t set out to be a multimedia journalist and coordinate huge projects, but it was a lot of incrementally putting all these little pieces together.

CV: HOW DO YOU LOOK FOR A STORY?

KA: Here at NPR we have a lot great teams working on great stories all the time, but when I was a freelancer, the way I’d start a story was thinking about what I was interested in and what I wanted to know more about. I think you can tell when someone really cares about what they are covering. So I’d only pitch something if I was really curious about the story. Having said that, if you’re pitching to a specific publication you can’t just think about you; you have to understand their audience, because your story has to resonate with more than just one person.

CV: HOW DO YOU APPROACH A NEW PROJECT?

KA: First we think about resources and time, which are the two indicators of what we can do with any given story. Since we are very deadline driven, we might not be able to spend the time that we want to go as deep as we want to. Another factor we consider is the longevity of the story and its reach. When we’re doing stories here at NPR we’re thinking about a national and a global audience, so if a story is hyperlocal, we don’t spend too much time on it. It’s really about understanding our audience and thinking about what would really make a unique web experience for our audience.

CV: YOU STARTED AT NPR TRAINING REPORTERS IN MULTIMEDIA, WHAT’S THE IMPORTANCE OF THIS TRAINING? 

KA: I love doing this training because I’ve had people walk out of the room feeling like the whole world has opened up. I think that everyone working in media today needs to have a semblance of visual literacy, and what I mean by that is that that they simply need to know and understand what makes a good image and how to communicate its editorial relevance. I feel that when you empower everyone with the visual language, you make them more apt to collaborate.

CV: WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO SOMEONE STARTING OUT IN THE FIELD?

KA: What was really valuable to me is having a strong foundation in one medium. I think that there is a hunger to be able to understand and do a lot of different things, but what has been really advantageous to me is the fact that I know photography, I know still imagery and I know my camera. That is my foundation and I can add to that. If I didn’t have that confidence, I don’t know if I would be able to navigate other waters or I would be able to collaborate so easily.

CV: WHAT’S THE BEST ADVICE YOU GOT WHEN YOU WERE STARTING OUT?

KA: When I was interning with Ed Kashi he said something that really stuck: ‘Once you gain your confidence in photography you’re going to be fine.’ I thought he meant confidence behind the camera, but what he really meant was me being confident in myself as a storyteller and in who I am. Once you gain that confidence and you put in the time to make yourself an expert, that’ll make you a richer journalist than if you try to do everything all at once.

Kainaz Amaria is currently at the multimedia desk at NPR. You can see more of her work on her portfolio, her blog, or her daily commute shots on Tumblr and Instagram.
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