Photojournalist Claire Thomas

"I want my photos to simply convey an accurate reflection of the truth"

Interview: Nezih Tavlas / November 3, 2021

(Credit: Joshua Mcdonald)

Photojournalism News: What drew you to photojournalism?

Claire Thomas: It was my love of horses that drew me into photography, and subsequently into photojournalism. I grew up riding horses in the Welsh countryside, and while at University in England I had the chance to spend the summers working as a horse wrangler on a guest ranch in the mountains of Wyoming, USA. It was there, surrounded by horses and exceptional natural beauty, that my interest in photography was sparked. I soon realised that I wanted to pursue photography professionally, although it took me some time to figure out how to make that happen.

After completing a degree in Politics, I felt compelled to try and see for myself the realities on the ground for the people affected by the policies and conflicts I’d studied, which is what ultimately led me to choose photojournalism as my main field of focus.  

 Photojournalism News: What equipment do you use? Do you have a favourite lens/camera?

Claire Thomas: I mostly use a Nikon D850 with a 24-70mm f2.8 lens. I love everything about this camera, so much so that I recently bought a second one to use with my 70-200mm f2.8 lens. I also recently bought a mirrorless Nikon Z6ii, which I’m looking forward to shooting with on my next assignment.

Photojournalism News: What social media platforms do you use?

Claire Thomas:

Photojournalism News: How do you prepare yourself before any assignment? What would you put in your camera bag for a typical task?

Claire Thomas: I start by researching the subject or story beforehand, and then I make a mental list of images I think would illustrate the story.

I make sure that all my camera batteries are fully charged, my memory cards are formatted, and I have plenty of spares packed.

For each shoot, what I carry with me depends on the type of assignment and how I intend to shoot. For example, while riding horses with the Kazakh eagle hunters in Mongolia, I soon discovered that, as well trained as their horses are, riding with two camera bodies and two big lenses attached wasn’t an ideal set up for neither myself nor my pony… After that, I stuck to carrying just one camera while on horseback.

For all assignments I carry 5 or 6 spare batteries (or more if I’m not likely to have access to electricity), a few spare memory cards (again depending on when I’ll be able to transfer onto my hard drive), a notebook and pen, some granola bars, plenty of water, a packet of tissues, and migraine medicine.

 Photojournalism News: How would you best describe your style of work? What are you trying to say with your photography?

Claire Thomas: I guess I would describe my style of photography as documentary with a focus on culture and the environment, and issues surrounding conflicts and humanitarian crises. My approach to photojournalism, and photography in general, is rooted in my passion for storytelling. My goal is simply to tell stories, and to accurately reflect reality in a compelling, engaging, and sensitive way. I hope that my images offer an insight into the lives of the people I meet and the places I visit, while helping to dispel misconceptions and stereotypes.

Photojournalism News: How many photos do you take for one story?

Claire Thomas: That really depends on each individual story and the length of time allocated to it. On a two-week assignment I can easily take a few thousand frames. It’s not really something I think about while I’m working, I just focus on capturing what’s in front of me. We’re so lucky with digital technology that we can take as many photos as we want without worrying about the cost of film etc.

Photojournalism News: What is the last trip you made?

Claire Thomas: In August I spent some time in eastern Turkey working on a piece about Afghan refugees who have fled the Taliban and who now face tremendous difficulties in Turkey with the constant threat of deportation back to Afghanistan.

Photojournalism News: What projects will you be working on next?

Claire Thomas: I’m heading to New Mexico next week to start working on a story about the management of wild horses on public lands in the US.

Early next year I will be relocating to Cairo, Egypt, so I will be shifting my focus back to stories in the Middle East and Africa.

Photojournalism News: Which of your photographs would you describe as your favourite? What makes them so special to you?

Claire Thomas: I would say that some of the strongest images I’ve captured are the photos I took of the medics working behind the frontline during the battle to liberate the city of Mosul from ISIS control. The images are confronting and give an intimate insight into the harrowing human cost of conflict. It’s hard to say they are my favourites images because the context is so deeply sad and tragic, but I believe that photography is important in drawing attention to the raw reality of war and its impact on a civilian population.

One of the most poignant images I’ve captured is of a two-month-old baby who was brought to a makeshift field clinic where the medics were providing emergency pre-hospital care. The baby was acutely malnourished, and visibly on the brink of starvation after being born during the battle, trapped in ISIS-held territory without access to proper medical care. In the photo, the baby - whose name is Sulaiman - is being examined by Katie Batrouney, a paramedic from Australia who was volunteering as a frontline medic with the organization Global Response Management.  It’s a sad and haunting image, but for me it represents the true but tragic human cost of conflict, while also highlighting the healing work of people like Katie, who risked their lives to help save others.

 Two years after I took the photo, I was able to find the baby who is now in relatively good health. For me, knowing that he survived, the picture has now come to symbolize the triumph of the human spirit, and exemplifies the effect that healing can have in times of war. 

 If I were to choose one photo, however, that has had the biggest impact on my career so far, it would have to be the quirky photo I took of the camel yawning in front of the Great Pyramids of Giza in Cairo, Egypt. The photo was selected as Photo of the Day by National Geographic and was subsequently published in the magazine. That became an unexpected turning point for me professionally. At the time I was teaching English in Spain, and it gave me the push I needed to follow my dream of pursuing photography as a fulltime profession. I’ve never looked back since.

Photojournalism News: What message do you want your photos to convey?

Claire Thomas: I want my photos to simply convey an accurate reflection of the truth in a way that connects with the viewer. I want my images to highlight the common thread of the human struggle to not only survive, but to build a better future for oneself and family. Be that in situations of violent conflict, occupation, refugees fleeing towards hope, or nomadic people subsisting on what many would consider meagre resources. I also hope that my photos help put a face to a crisis or a conflict, evoking compassion, curiosity, and empathy, while serving as a reminder of our common humanity, yet disparate fates.

(All images © Courtesy of Claire Thomas)

Photojournalism News: What does a photo need to be a great in your eyes?

Claire Thomas: It needs to tell a story, to make the viewer stop and engage in the story. It must have good light and strong composition. In the end, what makes a great photo is subjective, but when you see a great photo you know it.

Photojournalism News: In the digital age people consume billions of photos every single day, under the circumstances what could make a photo memorable?

Claire Thomas: I think that, despite the volume of images we consume, there’s always an appetite for powerful, professional and emotionally evocative photography. Even in the digital age, I think seeing an image in print always offers a richer and more visceral experience to viewing it on a screen.

To me, a memorable photo is one that tells the story of a place, a person, or a situation, in a way that shows sensitivity and understanding.

Photojournalism News: What motivates you to continue taking pictures and what do you do to keep motivated?

Claire Thomas: I feel very passionate about the art of visual storytelling, and when I have an idea for a story my mind automatically starts visualising the images. As photographers, we are granted the enormous privilege of connecting with people from diverse cultures and backgrounds, who welcome us into their lives, even momentarily, giving us a glimpse of their reality, which is often very different from our own. Connecting with people and sharing their stories through photography inspires me to keep going and makes me feel incredibly grateful to do this work.  

Photojournalism News: What was the biggest professional risk you have taken and what was the outcome?

Claire Thomas: Working in areas of conflicts, there are, of course, inherent and unavoidable risks. While covering the battle against ISIS in Mosul, there were many moments that were life-threatening. Everyday there was the threat of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), ISIS sniper fire, and the many other dangers that are inherent in any active war zone. Our job is to always be cognisant of those risks and to mitigate them to the best of our ability.

 Photojournalism News: What would be your dream assignment?

Claire Thomas: Riding horses with the Kazakh eagle hunters in Mongolia was definitely a dream assignment, and one I’d love to repeat. I’m drawn to a broad range of assignments: On the one hand I love to pursue personal photography projects that draw on my background and affinity with horses, and on the other hand I feel compelled to cover issues arising out of conflicts, crises, and social injustices.

Photojournalism News: What are the essential skills/ qualities a photojournalist should have?

Claire Thomas: I think it’s essential to have great people skills as a photojournalist. You need to be able to connect with people and to make them feel comfortable in your company. You certainly have to be a good listener, and if you’re working in the Middle East, be ready to drink a lot of delicious tea!

You also need to be very self-motivated, organised and have an unrelenting curiosity to discover and share stories. Fundamentally, you must be a good storyteller.

Photojournalism News: What do you think about the digital manipulation of images?

Claire Thomas: In the field of photojournalism, our job of course is simply to capture moments of truth and reality. Digitally manipulation, like altering the scene in front of us, is therefore not acceptable and violates the ethics of photojournalism.

Photojournalism News: What does it mean to be an ethical photojournalist?

Claire Thomas: It means not putting your profession before your humanity. It means working with integrity, compassion and sensitivity. As photojournalists, we have a fundamental responsibility to do no harm to those we photograph, which sometimes means hiding identities. We must always be culturally sensitive and have a good understanding of the context in which we work.

Photojournalism News: How do you see the role of photojournalism evolving in the world? Do you think photojournalism is losing its importance?

Claire Thomas: I think photojournalism is as important as ever, especially given how quickly and easily false information can spread nowadays. Of course, the nature of how our work is published has -and still is - changing with the shift from print to online, but I strongly believe there will always be space for photojournalism. Not only do photographs provide an important visual record of events, but a compelling image can evoke emotion and encourage the viewer to engage in a story, draw attention to an issue, and, in some cases, contribute to a change in policy.

Photojournalism News: What is it like to be a female photojournalist in a male-dominated field?

Claire Thomas: There are of course challenges involved with being a female photojournalist in a male-dominated industry, but I would say that photojournalism is generally a difficult and highly competitive industry regardless of gender. I think perhaps women are sometimes under-estimated and may be overlooked by some editors who are more likely to assign a male photographer, although in my own personal experience I’ve felt very lucky to receive a lot of support and encouragement both from editors and fellow photojournalists, male and female. I actually think it’s a great time to be a woman in this industry, especially given how many remarkable and talented female photojournalists there are to be inspired by.

Photojournalism News: Do you have any advice for aspiring photojournalists?

Claire Thomas: Be persistent, determined, organised and patient. There’s no obvious road map to success as a photojournalist, it takes time to understand how the industry works and how to get your work placed. Get to know the publications you’d like to contribute to – their style and type of content etc. I would also say that it’s incredibly important to have a thick skin and not to take rejection personally.

Claire Thomas

Claire Thomas is a photojournalist and documentary photographer from Wales, UK, currently based between New York and the UK.
A graduate in Politics from the University of the West of England, her photojournalism work is focused on issues surrounding political and military conflicts, human rights, and humanitarian and environmental crises. From within the camps that emerged from the refugee crisis in Europe to the frontlines in the battle against ISIS in Iraq, Claire has covered a range of stories in various countries, contributing images and photo essays to leading newspapers, magazines and news agencies worldwide.