Altaf Qadri is a Kashmiri-born photojournalist currently based in India. He worked for the European Press Photo Agency starting in 2003, until joining the Associated Press in 2008. He has covered news in Afghanistan, India, Libya, Myanmar, Saudi Arabia, and Cambodia, among others, and received numerous awards for his work – most recently, an Honorable Mention from the World Press for “School for Less Fortunate.” We spoke to him about the ins and outs of being a wire photographer.
CV: How do you get your assignments? Do you know in advance where they’ll send you or is it a spur of the moment thing?
AQ: In Delhi, we have a big bureau so we work as a team here. AP has photographers and videographers here. So whatever happens, it comes to us and we decide who’s going to shoot what, and stuff like that. But in Amritsar we didn’t have anything like that. If you have an office, you have contacts. If you don’t have an office, you have to make your own contacts so that if something happens, you come to know. You keep in touch with local people, local newspapers. This is how it works.
I had to keep in touch with other photographers, see what they were doing at those newspapers, scan the newspapers at the mall, see what was happening that AP would be interested in that would be of national or international importance. Other assignments you’d get at the office, which would happen once in a month or so.
CV: On average how many pictures do you take for an assignment, and how many do you file?
AQ: It depends on the assignment. If it is very visually good, you can take 500-600 photos and if it is visually not good, but it is an important assignment or big news, then 300-400. When it comes to filing, again, if it is good photos, no more than 20. If it is big news, then it depends on how many good pictures you got. But it depends on what you’re shooting and what is the news all about: if it’s a feature, spot news, breaking news, local, international – it varies.
CV: What are some of the most memorable things you’ve photographed for the AP?
AQ: Many – it’s difficult to recall. As far as satisfaction is concerned, the school which I did [which won the World Press Photo Award 2013 Honorable Mention] was more satisfying. Because you can see that a little effort of yours can change the lives of people. So it was really satisfying that I just happened to bump into this school, I went there again and again, and thankfully it got noticed everywhere. And after that day almost 80% of all the news organizations have covered that school.
The Holi Festival last year. That was the first time I actually was shooting something really happy. I was right in the action where they were throwing colors, water… I had to get prepared. My camera was covered with film [clear wrap] and it was quite amazing. Sometimes there are people who are drunk, though… in fact two of my colleagues got into a fight and one from Getty got his hand really badly hurt. It was good in the end.
CV: When you go out on assignment, do you usually go with a print reporter as well? Or is it just the photographers?
AQ: Talking in terms of AP – if it is a story which AP text is also doing, we go with them at times. So sometimes you can go with the reporter, or sometimes you go alone. If it is something which is outside Delhi or a special news assignment, you usually go with a reporter.
As far as pictures are concerned, I have to make sure I understand what the story is all about. And then I am on my own. The reporter interviews people, he talks to different people, and I am sometimes with him or her, or sometimes I go off on my own. Usually you have to see things differently. Sometimes you have to go early morning for nice light, or evenings, and reporters don’t have that constraint. Usually reporters have to work during the day when they can meet people. So it’s a bit of a tricky situation for us. We have to think how to get our job done.
CV: How do you approach an assignment? When you get to your location, what do you do to figure out what shots you want to get?
AQ: If it’s a feature assignment, you take it easy and you go slow and you know what kind of photos you want for the story. If it is breaking news or something violent or a natural disaster, where it’s all of a sudden, you go straight away and shoot whatever you see. And then after some time you think. You have got the initial images, and now you can concentrate more on composition and experiment and do different things, you see it from different angles.
CV: Have you ever encountered violence or felt like you were in danger while you were on assignment?
AQ: Yes, many times. In Kashmir and also in Afghanistan. India as well. Everywhere – wherever there is violence, you are in the middle of the two parties. Whether it’s small violence or big violence, you tend to get hurt. You have to be very careful about yourself, and simultaneously be thinking about what you have to shoot, and how to safeguard yourself. I had this horrible experience in Libya, which you might have read on my website. I was shooting on the front lines and suddenly we came under attack of the Gaddafi forces and I was left behind enemy lines. I was stuck there for 30 hours.
CV: When time is short, how do you get access to photograph? How do you get people’s trust?
AQ: When you’re covering a conflict or a natural disaster, the victims or the survivors, now everybody knows if somebody is going to help you, it’s going to be through media. Unless and until people know what you’re going through, nobody is going to help you. So this hope that someone is coming from outside, this allows you to be in their situation shooting whatever is happening. Then there are people like community leaders or the family and you convince them. When this trust is built, you have the access.
There are times when there are people who don’t allow you to shoot. But you have to respect that. And even if you’re allowed to shoot, you have to maintain an ethical line which is not to be crossed over. You as a person and you as a photographer have to respect the privacy of the subject as well. So this whole thing – hope, respect – comes into it. And sometimes you just have to go and shoot a few frames and come back if you’re not allowed to shoot.
CV: Do you think you’re going to continue working for a wire service for a while or are there other photography projects you’d like to pursue?
AQ: Honestly, I’d love to shift to more documentary, long-term projects. But for now, for a couple of years I’ll stick to wire services. It depends also on the market and how I’ll be feeling two years down the line.
CV: What attracts you to documentary photography?
AQ: It’s an in-depth study, it’s slow-paced, you don’t have to shoot and then after one hour file pictures no matter what. [At the wire services] if there’s something happening, you need to shoot, file in twenty minutes no matter what happens. That’s really not good for you as a photographer. During editing, some of your best shots are left there and after one year when you’re reliving what you have shot you say, oh shit, I haven’t filed this? It happens so many times.
So documentary photography – you shoot at ease, do in depth research, and then go to the subjects again and again… it builds you as a man, it builds you as a good person, builds your reputation. All the legends in photojournalism are doing something wonderful as far as long term projects are concerned. Somebody is doing something for conservation of wild animals, somebody is doing something for conservation of forests, of languages, stuff like that. Wire photography is like cotton candy – you eat it, it melts in your mouth and it’s gone. Nobody knows you! So unless you have done some really great photojournalism, only then one knows you. Otherwise there have been thousands of wire photographers who are unknown now.
There is a time in your life when you want to give something back to society. It is then that you can do long term projects and help.
CV: What advice do you have for someone who would like to work for a wire service?
AQ: To be consistent. Wire photographers have to [work] almost every day, so they have to keep their eyes open every day. They have to see new things, or old things in a new perspective, every day. So they have to go out, shoot, and keep doing what they love to do. Don’t shy away from experimenting. I mean, thank God for digital photography – you don’t have to spend much. You don’t have to buy film, process film. You go, you have a 16GB card, you can get 2,000 photos and then use it again. But shoot as if you were shooting on film. Because nowadays you will see fast cameras – you shoot 100 frames and eventually you will get 1 good frame. That is no big deal. But the thing is, if you have to shoot only 5 frames, there should be one good frame. That’s the trick. And always respect your subjects. If you are a good person, you will be a good photographer.
(For more on Qadri check out our post on how he became a photojournalist.)