Photojournalist Rebecca Conway
"I’m trying to illustrate people's stories in the best way possible"
Interview: Nezih Tavlas / October 20, 2021
(Courtesy of Rebecca Conway)
Photojournalism News: What drew you to photojournalism?
Rebecca Conway: I was working as a correspondent and what had drawn me to journalism in part was powerful imagery - so I feel like I should have realised far sooner that I was in probably the right job but with the wrong tools. I was interested in photography and working alongside a lot of photographers, watching how they operate and what they look for - it felt like much more of a natural fit for me in terms of how I wanted to tell stories. It quickly became something I turned all of my focus toward, and I left text via photo editing to what I do now.
Photojournalism News: What equipment do you use? Do you have a favourite lens/camera?
Rebecca Conway: I shoot with the Nikon d850 and use fixed lenses, and sometimes the 24-70.
Photojournalism News: How do you prepare yourself before any assignment? What would you put in your camera bag for a typical task?
Rebecca Conway: I research a lot and I always have books and notes with me when I travel. I love the research element of the work; you never know when a fact or phrase will lead to noticing an image while you’re working or shaping a project. If I’m covering news I’ll be closely following developments and making sure I have numbers of organisations and institutions I may need to reach out to – so for example covering Covid-19 I’ve been in touch with medical staff and hospitals. Other than that for just a pretty standard day: extra batteries, memory cards, power bank, cash, ID, SPF, rain cover, tiny first-aid kit... I also never go anywhere without a scarf; you never know when work will take you into a temple or mosque. In the field I work with a small Domke bag; it’s indestructible and holds an extraordinary amount of gear. It changes though depending on environment and the type of story so I’m repacking a lot.
Photojournalism News: How would you best describe your style of work? What are you trying to say with your photography?
Rebecca Conway: With some assignments I’m there to document what is going on; it’s more about what is happening in front of me. With long-term and personal work I focusing on issues I’m interested in, such as the impact conflict has on civilians, or climate change on indigenous communities - but it’s always more about drawing out the experiences of the people I’m photographing and trying to illustrate their stories in the best way possible.
Photojournalism News: How many photos do you take for one story?
Rebecca Conway: It differs widely, and is dictated by situation; with very sensitive moments or stories I shoot lightly to avoid being intrusive. If I’m working on images, for example, of a festival or situation where there’s a lot going on it could be way more. The last published piece I worked I think I shot something like 1,500 images in four-five locations over a couple weeks, which feels quite a low number; it was a delicate story and I tried really hard to only photograph moments I thought were particularly telling.
Photojournalism News: What is the last trip you made?
Rebecca Conway: I’ve just finished assignments in Rajasthan and eastern India. I’ve been trying over the last few months to cover the Covid-19 surge here away from India’s cities.
Photojournalism News: What projects will you be working on next?
Rebecca Conway: I have three independent projects on hold because of travel restrictions in South Asia but those are my focus currently. I’m watching a few situations to see when I might be able to start working on them again, and I’m due to head to Nepal; but with news assignments you never really know what’s next.
Photojournalism News: Which of your photographs would you describe as your favourite? What makes them so special to you?
Rebecca Conway: I’m not sure I have a favourite. I find looking over my own work a bit excruciating, but images that stand out for me do so because of the moment I witnessed at the time, or the people I met or lived with while on a story. I am going back over photographs I was taking when I first started really trying to ‘become’ a photographer and I have loved looking through them; I was going out most days and taking photographs in markets and places near where I worked so I could shoot before I had to be at the bureau. I can see all the things I was trying and all the mistakes I was making, but it’s interesting because they’re a catalogue of how hard I was working to make connections and understand the craft. I think when you start out you can be at your best in some ways because you’re trying a lot of things based solely on feeling and effort. You’re not talking yourself out of taking a photograph because for example you know it won’t work technically, or the framing is off.
Photojournalism News: What message do you want your photos to convey?
Rebecca Conway: I don’t know if my photos convey this but powerful and emotive photography can make those viewing it care a bit more about the planet and the people on it, and I think to do that you just have to keep making work that show the stories and realities of others. When you do so many varied assignments I’m not sure there’s a cohesive message – it’s about trying to get the reality of a situation across.
(All images © Courtesy of Rebecca Conway)
Photojournalism News: What does a photo need to be a great in your eyes?
Rebecca Conway: Emotive. It needs to make a connection – and have beautiful light.
Photojournalism News: In the digital age people consume billions of photos every single day, under the circumstances what could make a photo memorable?
Rebecca Conway: I would say the same thing; we all scroll but we stop at images which are powerful emotionally, whether because they convey joy, loss, desperation – images that stand the test of time do so I think because they’re unifying. They contain something we can all identify with.
Photojournalism News: What motivates you to continue taking pictures and what do you do to keep motivated?
Rebecca Conway: Particularly in the last few years it has been because I’ve focusing on stories and areas where people face mounting conflict and iniquity, and without documentation or imagery to show this, I believe it will continue. I’m not saying images can always influence policy or alter public mindset to the degree that real change will come about, but it’s important to show people in these situations that their stories and experiences are important enough to document.
Photojournalism News: What was the biggest professional risk you have taken and what was the outcome?
Rebecca Conway: Many, but I don’t know if I really see them as risks, per se, just more – situation and opportunities that are evaluated as they arise. Some work carries a degree of risk but I try to focus on telling the story as well as I can and just make that the focus. Often the people you’re photographing will almost certainly be in a more precarious position than you and that’s something I always try to remember and bring out.
Photojournalism News: What would be your dream assignment?
Rebecca Conway: The projects I’m working on for myself currently come very close; they focus on themes around climate change, conflict, and remote and marginalised communities.
Photojournalism News: What are the essential skills/ qualities a photojournalist should have?
Rebecca Conway: Empathy, tenacity, patience, rigorous journalism and the ability to prioritise.
Photojournalism News: What do you think about the digital manipulation of images?
Rebecca Conway: It doesn’t belong in the industry. Far more troubling to me though are the photographers who set up scenes in the field; it’s not always easy to spot in a published image but it’s everywhere, and it teaches those we photograph that their stories aren’t enough, that they need to somehow be manipulated to matter. It’s deeply unethical and almost impossible to prevent.
Photojournalism News: What does it mean to be an ethical photojournalist?
Rebecca Conway: Absolutely rigorous journalism, informed consent particularly when photographing sensitive stories, zero manipulation of a scene and detailed, factual captions.
Photojournalism News: How do you see the role of photojournalism evolving in the world? Do you think photojournalism is losing its importance?
Rebecca Conway: I don’t think it will ever lose its importance; in fact the other way around. I think we’re looking more than ever to photojournalists and photography to convey the real truth of a situation, away from rumour and propaganda. I think there was a moment a few years ago when everyone thought the role of the professional photographer in the face of the ability to source images taken by the public or seen on social media would no longer be tenable; but it’s very clear more than ever that people value and look for professional photojournalism and documentary work.
Photojournalism News: What is it like to be a female photojournalist in a male-dominated field?
Rebecca Conway: I think there are moves towards some sort of parity. Some editors really have our backs; there are some really supportive people in the industry who want to see a more diverse field of photographers on assignments, but that’s clearly not the case everywhere. You’re still getting passed over on big assignments, and we will I think for a long time be up against outdated notions that women can’t cover conflict, work in risky situations, shoot sport, balance their personal lives with work, work on anything other than ‘softer’ stories. It’s an attitude I don’t see male photographers having to contend with. What’s the most strange to me is that in many regions, female photographers will always much more access to certain stories, or aspects of one. There are places for example in Pakistan and Afghanistan I’ve been able to photograph specifically because I’m a woman – so you’d think you see more female photographers on assignment in these places – but you don’t. I don’t think women should only cover stories impacting women, but it’s odd that sometimes we’re not even the majority in those types of situations.
Photojournalism News: Do you have any advice for aspiring photojournalists?
Rebecca Conway: Respect, communicate and build trust with those you photograph, even if your interaction lasts only a few moments, and be patient - most people aren’t used to having photographers in their personal spaces. Practice. Look for local stories where you can focus on the photography and not the logistics. Develop personal work that means something to you. Find one or two mentors who really care about you and the work, listen to them, be humble and pass it along. Don’t go to too many portfolio reviews; find the good workshops and exhibitions and go to one of those instead.
Rebecca Conway is a British photographer based in South Asia, focusing on stories around conflict, climate and minority communities.
A partial list of clients includes Reuters, The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse, Getty Images, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, The Observer, The Telegraph and The New York Times.
Her work has been recognised by the Marilyn Stafford Fotoreportage Award, the Biennial Grant, the Festival of Ethical Photography’s World Report Master Award, the Julia Margaret Cameron Award and the IWMF’s Anja Niedringhaus Courage in Photojournalism Award. She was a student at the 2018 Eddie Adams Workshop and a nominee for the 2020 Joop Swart masterclass.