Lessons from Deanne Fitzmaurice on The Importance of Engaging with Subjects
One important question has come up consistently throughout Pulitzer Prize winning photojournalist Deanne Fitzmaurice’s career: Can she remain objective while engaging with her subjects? “I come from a newspaper background which has a really strict policy about not getting involved with subjects—you could get fired. It’s all about credibility and our photographs being believable,” the photographer and Nikon ambassador told the audience at PhotoPlus Expo during her presentation, “Honest Photography: Learning from a Long-Term Pulitzer Winning Project.”
However, “As time went on and I got more involved in these projects, it felt more real to who I am as a person to engage and make a human connection,” Fitzmaurice says. For example, when she was assigned to photograph Barry Bonds—a baseball player notorious for not liking his picture being taken—Fitzmaurice broke the ice immediately. “I walked right up to him on the field and asked if he has a problem with me taking his picture. He said no, then asked me for my name,” she recalls. “Then he says ‘Great. I’ll call you Dee.’”
After that, she continued to build relationships with, as she says, “people around the edges,” like the guards at the dugout, who ultimately gave her exclusive access to the locker rooms and behind-the-scenes spots.
Engaging with subjects was particularly impactful when Fitzmaurice was assigned by the San Francisco Chronicle to photograph Saleh, a 9-year old Iraqi boy who had been flown to Oakland Children’s Hospital for emergency treatment in 2003. Saleh had lost his right hand, an eye, fingers and had a massive hole in his abdomen after a grenade detonated near him in his small village in southeastern Iraq. Fitzmaurice captured Saleh’s physical injuries and recovery, as well as the emotional scars that lasted over the coming years. She won a Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography for the coverage in 2005 and, 13 years after beginning to document Saleh (and no longer on assignment from The Chronicle), Fitzmaurice continues to document him and his family, and their assimilation into American culture.
“I was around Saleh and his dad so much that they just forgot about me,” Fitzmaurice says. “You have to build trust, build relationships, and then back off and capture moments that say something.”
Here are a few tips Fitzmaurice offered the audience on how to be an engaged observer, and how to use that to your benefit when telling a story:
One day while driving through the Nevada desert, Fitzmaurice pulled over at a brothel thinking it’d be an interesting place to explore. She knocked on the door with camera in-hand and was greeted by the brothel “mother” who was understandably suspicious. “I was honest and upfront with her,” Fitzmaurice recalls. “I said ‘I’m with the San Francisco Chronicle and I’m interested in taking pictures that might be published,’ and after we spoke for a while, she seemed to sense I was genuinely curious and she said ‘okay.’”
That particular interaction and the resulting photos lead to Fitzmaurice’s series, “Sex Trade—USA,” which explores the life of sex workers in the US.
Know Your Camera
“Be prepared,” says Fitzmaurice. “There’s always that one shot that got away, but if you know your camera and anticipate what might happen, you won’t miss it.”
Make A Human Connection
In December 2004, Fitzmaurice traveled to the border of Iraq and Jordan to photograph the rest of Saleh’s family (his mom and other close relatives) on their journey to America. In preparation, Fitzmaurice went to the American Embassy and asked for assistance and access.
“The man we spoke with was not going to help after we tried endlessly to persuade him,” Fitzmaurice recalls, “But I finally pulled out my laptop and showed him photos I had taken of Saleh and his eyes welled up. He paused and said, ‘I have a boy his age. What can I do to help?'”