I’m Not a Photojournalist But I Play One in Kolkata

For over twenty years I’ve enjoyed the pleasure of telling stories with video. I’ve honed my craft, expanded my knowledge, and know my way around everything from a T2i to a C300. I’ve written books on the topic of video, given speeches, tutored, trained, appeared on podcasts, and write or have written for a number of magazines. Video is my comfort zone.

When it comes to taking photos however, that’s a whole different ball game. That particular skillset and expertise in the family falls on my wife. However, recently I was on a video shoot of all things, when I had the opportunity to try my chops at real, honest to goodness photojournalism. I’d love to share with you what I learned as a newbie PJ photog.

Creative Commons License
“Streets of Kolkata” by Ron Dawson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

The Setting – Kolkata, India

Peachtree Church is a long-standing client of mine that does a lot of work aiding global causes. One such cause is the fight against human trafficking, particularly the sex trade. A couple of organizations in particular they partner with are International Justice Mission (IJM) and the Mahima Homes in Kolkata, India (aka Calcutta). These are a group  of after-care homes for teen girls rescued from the sex trade.

The very first video series I ever produced for Peachtree included a segment about Mahima. At that time, Peachtree didn’t have any of its own video footage from India. Other than the interviews, the footage I used was from another Mahima partner, Discovery Church in Orlando, FL. So this year Peachtree decided to capture its own video. And that’s where I come in. I was sent along with their mission team this year to document the event for the purposes of making another video that will aid in their campaign to raise funds and recruit future volunteers. The experience was…surreal.

A lot of homes and buildings in Kolkata look like post apocalyptic movie sets.
A lot of homes and buildings in Kolkata look like post apocalyptic movie sets.

I would like to save my specific feelings and experiences from the trip for a future blog post when I’ll share the final video. Frankly, as I only returned last Saturday, I’m still processing everything I saw and experienced. Nothing can fully prepare you for a visit to a city like Kolkata. There’s a lot to take in.

For this blog post I just want to share my experience as a “wannabe” photojournalist. I think the lessons I learned can be helpful to those of you out there considering it as a career or hobby.

Lessons Learned

So without further ado, here are the top 7 lessons I learned during my first go at being a photojournalist. Critiques are welcome in the comments. (Seriously, please offer input on the good and the bad so that your comments can help other readers as well).

1. Know Your Gear and Your Craft

I know this goes without saying, but it still begs repeating. As I mentioned before, when it comes to using a DSLR or mirrorless camera for video, I can practically do it with my eyes closed. However, knowing the intricacies of using a camera to shoot stills is completely different. Naturally, there are aspects of filmmaking the easily cross over. But a lot doesn’t translate that well.

For this shoot I was using the Sony A7s. I chose that camera because of its amazing low light capabilities. (I wasn’t able to bring lighting gear on this trip.) Auto was my friend when shooting stills on this trip. But every now and then I’d bounce to “P”, “S” and “M” (that sounds dirty). I remember hearing a talk by friend, client and celebrity wedding photog Joe Buissink about how he often shoots in “P-mode.” But I’m guessing that when you’re Joe Buissink, you can pretty much shoot in any mode you want and get amazing photos.

2. Single Shot Stories

It was really important for me to do more than just compose nice shots and get my exposure right. I wanted to find images that told a story in one shot. It’s easy for me to tell a story at 24 frames per second. But when you have to tell a whole story in just ONE frame, well, that’s a tad more challenging. Even more so when you’re driving down a bumpy Kolkata dirt road.

Here’s one that even now still haunts me. Who is this woman? Why is she there? Why is she alone? Is she lonely? Did she escape one of India’s red light districts and is now hiding from her pimp. She didn’t seem like a typical Kolkata homeless. She kind of reminded me of “Afghan Girl.”

Even among 1 million homeless, you can be lonely.
Even among 1 million homeless, you can be lonely.

3. Happy Accidents Count

So it’s my theory that some of the best photojournalist shots are happy accidents. Where you’re looking at one thing, but later on discover you captured something else you didn’t even notice. That happened a few times for me on this trip. Here are a couple of my favorite.

Driving down the dirt road to the Sundarbans Islands, I saw a villager walking his cows. But that’s not all he was doing.

He obviously didn't have time to brush his teeth before leaving for the office.
He obviously didn’t have time to brush his teeth before leaving for the office.

This photo reminded me of Zack Arias’s #de_Vice street photo series. However, I was looking at and aiming for the little kids. It was a glorious discovery to find later that the girl on the left was checking out her texts.

Even on the streets of Kolkata, kids are buried in their cell phones.
Even on the streets of Kolkata, teen agers are buried in their cell phones.

4. Contrast Is Not Just for Light

Keeping with my theme to go “beyond the basic,” I was constantly looking for contrasts. Not in lighting, but in the subjects I was shooting and the environments they were in.

Here was a beautiful, serene hut on stilts. Something you might see in some Fiji Islands resort…

Not exactly Figi, but it has its own beauty.
Not exactly Fiji, but it has its own beauty.

That is until you see the backdrop of where it’s actually located…

The hut in context of its location near the brick factory.
The hut in context of its location near the brick factory.

All you need do is look at the streets around Kolkata to see the irony in this billboard.


Lastly, here’s a shot of the garden in one of the Mahima homes. It’s a tranquil oasis of greenery, peace and quiet in a loud and very brown and grey Kolkata. But even among its serenity, there’s a reminder of where the girls come from. Barbed wire lines the walls, designed to keep out those who might try to take back their “property,” but also to keep newer (and often scared) girls from running away.

An oasis of beauty for the Mahima girls must be lined with barbed wire.
An oasis of beauty for the Mahima girls must be lined with barbed wire.

5. Engage With the Locals

When you travel to an exotic country like this, you’re bound to run into exotic people. But it’s easy to forget that they are people. Not buildings or landscapes. Imagine if you were walking down your neighborhood street, and some stranger comes up to your face and starts taking pictures of you. How would you respond? (assuming you’re not Pauley Shore) Well, that’s basically what we were doing when we went out to the Sundarbans villages. (What must they have been thinking?) Anyway, I didn’t want to be a “hit and run” photographer, so I made it a point to try to communicate with them, show them the photos, and ask for permission to shoot their kids (although they had no idea what I was saying).

When I met these precious little kids, I kept pointing to myself and saying, “Ron.” I’d then point to them with that expected look on my face, hoping they’d tell me their names. For the life of me I could not get them to understand what the heck I was doing. They kept looking at me like I had a horn growing out of my head. It always works in the movies. 😦

"Party of Five."
“Party of Five.”

6. Worlds Collide!

Jumping back and forth between shooting video and photos is a pain in the arse. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, if you’re hired to shoot both photos and video for an event, find dedicated shooters for each. (For the record, Peachtree didn’t hire me to shoot photos, it was my choice to take photos in between the times I was shooting video). Never mind the fact that your brain is in a different creative mode when shooting one vs. the other, but you’re camera settings are going to be widely different for each as well. (And heaven forbid if you’re just a wannabe PJ shooter and don’t know what the heckfire half of the photo settings mean or do. 🙂

7. Stamina

Last and certainly not least, I learned that it takes stamina to be constantly shooting photos on a trip like this. I can’t tell you how many cool shots I did NOT get quite simply because I was too freaking tired. I kept thinking, “Eh, one of the other guys will get that on their iPhone.) Granted, I was also shooting video throughout the day, but I would’ve been just as tired had I been shooting stills. (And frankly, I was getting frustrated at the ratio of blurred photos to usable images. 🙂 (Have I mentioned already my frustration with that whole P, S & M thing? By the way, doesn’t “S” mean Shutter priority, wherein you pick the shutter speed and the camera picks everything else? If so, shouldn’t aperture and ISO be “locked” in that mode? They weren’t on the A7s. Am I missing something?”

Critiques Welcome

So there you have it. You can see a collection of m favorite shots from the trip below. Clicking on any image will  launch the carousel image gallery. I truly would appreciate your photo critiques. Again, share the good and the “room for improvement.”


9 thoughts on “I’m Not a Photojournalist But I Play One in Kolkata

  1. Hi Ron – since you requested critique I’ll give you a few here – I think critiquees (if done honestly and with the intention to help photographers train their eye and learn) can be a wealth of knowledge.

    A friend of mine and I were just talking about this moments ago – how I think every person starting out in photography should have images critiqued over months at a time so they can keep growing and getting better.

    Here’s a few things I’ll give as my critique:
    The first two images could be really striking if the angles were different. Sometimes it’s also about location. For these two images there are too many things distracting from what the story actually is – and one of those distractions is the angle.

    The villager walking his cows – by far my favorite. I love this image and could stare at it for a long while. It tells such a great story and has many layers to see. I don’t even really mind that there’s motion blur – you were possibly driving past?

    The billboard – I can see what you were trying to do – but it leaves the viewer guessing at what you were trying to say. I would like to see this photo with a pulled back view so we can see the streets. and from a directly straight on shot. With the billboard in the right third of the photo.

    I like the guy walking past the wall that says “stick no bill” – again – it comes down to angle. You seem to be fairly tall…? Sometimes if you hold the camera at your chest or belly and shoot it helps to get that type of perspective.

    I think you did a fine job, and going forward my advice would be to concentrate on your angles (up high or down too low or tilted angle from the side were the biggest distractions), and knowing when to come in close and when to pull back for a wider view.


    1. Sweet. Thanks for the critiques Renee. They mean a lot. FWIW, a majority of the photos were taken from a moving SUV going about 30-40 mph (50-60 kph). For instance, the “clean” billboard is an example. I totally agree with you. If I had my druthers, I WOULD have taken that photo with the streets in the shot as well.

      It’s funny you mentioned the brushing teeth photo as your favorite. One of the guys on the trip saw it and said, “That’s a NatGeo shot right there.” Ha! I wish. But I was honored he saw it as such. Would’ve been more impressive had I known he was brushing his teeth when I took it. 🙂

      I love your motion blur comment too. Goes back to the “know your gear.” I’m sure if I had a better understanding of how to set photo still settings, I could have gotten crisper images even from the moving SUV.

      Thanks again for the critique!

  2. anytime Ron! – and yeah, that’s the thing about it usually, is conditions are almost never perfect, what a shame! haha!
    I could tell you were in a vehicle probably the whole time, and I even said in my head “I bet if he could have gotten out and walked on foot these would look different.

    With the village guy – it’s great that you were in the moving car otherwise you probably would have never caught it!

    I remember my Photography instructor telling me (this was before digital cameras) – to remember that most Nat Geo photographers have to shoot 1,000 images to get an average of 7 good images.

    1. Wow. That’s an eye-opening ratio. You know, that thought actually crossed my mind while I was there. Certainly seeing my wife take photos on our Europe trip made me think of it too. Makes me feel better. 🙂 Thanks again for sharing.

  3. Thanks for sharing your thoughts Ron. I totally agree with you about switching between shooting stills and video. I just come at it from the opposite corner of the ring – I’m totally comfortable with the stills but fumble a bit with the video. If a client only hires one person to do both, they must be made to realize that something will suffer.

    I rarely operate as a street shooter when I work overseas. My preference is to get to know a subject a bit and then follow them around in their daily life. As far as shooting from a moving vehicle as one person wrote about, I think in all of my years of shooting only 1-2 photos were worthy of using as shot from a car’s window.

    Your point #1 is well taken. We must know our gear well. I just switched from Nikon D4’s to D750’s. I have recently missed a few moments because I was fumbling a bit with the new button layout. Still photography is all about finding the moments…anticipation…waiting…and capturing the emotion.

    In foreign cultures we often stick out. It takes time for people to get used to our presence and not just stare quizzically at our lens. If I can add anything to the discussion about your work shown here it would be to take time to engage the people so that they will then go back to their daily lives and you can capture a true moment. And to do that…you will definitely need stamina. Thanks for sharing.

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