How to Gain a Subject’s Trust for a Documentary Project

All images by Olivia Pasquarelli. Used with permission.

Documentary photography is a collaborative process. You tend to work with people as they go about being themselves. But in order for you to do that, you need one big thing first. While this may seem obvious, a documentary project is only successful when the photographer has earned the trust of their subjects. If you’re passionate about a subject, you should a find a way to submerge yourself in that world. But before you do that, you should ask yourself, “Why do I want to shoot this subject?” Make sure it’s for the right reasons before you even begin. You photograph something because you find it beautiful and fascinating on some level. You find your subject worthy of being photographed. Be sure to treat your subject with that level of respect.

Let’s delve further into gaining a subject’s trust.

Step 1: Find a Subject That Interests You

Earning a subject’s trust takes a lot of work that is much more enjoyable when you’re shooting a subject that fascinates you.

I find that people who live outside the norms of society are popular subjects for documentary photographers.  These subjects are popular because most people don’t live to their full potential in their lives and limit themselves because of perceived cultural and societal restrictions.  They see people who ignore these restrictions and are fascinated, almost living vicariously through the freedom and confidence found in these subjects.  I’ve sat through many critiques and photography workshops where the photographer is asked why they photographed their subject, and they give a response such as, “because they were weird”.  I translate this to “because they were liberated”.  

When photographing a group of people,  you should always give them time to get comfortable with you before you start taking photos.  Let them know clearly what your intentions are.  If you’re planning on making a book, publishing the work, or showing it in a gallery, let them know.  Make sure the comfort and trust is there before you begin to shoot.  

When you find a subject that you want to photograph, you’ll have to research their communities and where to find them.  I wanted to photograph circus sideshow performers, so I found every circus sideshow act in New York City, from contortionists to sword swallowers, and familiarized myself with their spaces.  I started with connections and conversations before I asked to shoot. If you want to eventually publish this work it’s best to research publications, magazines, and online news sources that feature documentary photography first. You might want to contact some outlets that specialize in the subject you’re shooting.  

Oh, also, it’s a good idea to have a model release.

Step 2: Do Your Research

Documentary projects require hours of behind the scenes work researching and studying everything about your chosen subject. If there’s a part of your subject that you identify with, then that’s even better. A personal connection will make it easier to find something to talk about, and something to identify within each other. This will make it simple for you to take good photographs, and for your subject to feel comfortable around you.

For the respect of your subject and the integrity of your work, it’s essential to learn as much as possible about what you’ll be shooting. Depending on what you’re taking pictures of, this research can include spending some time in a library, looking at other works of journalism and other photographer’s work, joining in on conversations online, and conducting interviews in person. My personal sentiment is that there is never enough research. Every seed of knowledge you gain along the way will grow into the context that makes a documentary series meaningful. Think about it this way: the members of the community that the documentary work is about should be able to look at the work and feel like it’s accurate, meaningful, and authentic.

Step 3: Integrate Yourself Into Your Subject’s Life

Ask yourself these questions: If your subject is a person or community: Does this subject have a space?  A place where they frequently spend time?  A group of friends? Spend time where they hang out. Talk to them, their friends, their family whenever possible.  Put yourself in their shoes.  How are you and your subject similar?  How are you different? I find that it’s possible to find something you can identify with in every single person on earth.  Try to focus on the similarities, it will help you portray your subject with empathy.  

If your subject is a place: Go there. Live there or pretend to. Spend so much time there as an outsider that you become an inhabitant of this place. Don’t just focus on what it looks like, what does it smell like? What does it remind you of? How does it feel to be a citizen of this place? Try to illustrate these feelings into images. If anyone sees you taking photos and asks why, be honest.  Tell them you’re shooting a series about this place and why, with sensitivity because it might be the person’s home.

Step 4: Always Get Permission, and Create Your Project with Honesty and Transparency

This is the most important and essential step of all. Without integrity from all parties involved, a documentary project is meaningless. Tell your subject what light you’re going to portray them in. Never lie about your intentions or what you will show to others.  Show them edits, give them prints, allow the work to be a part of their lives. Share your photos with them. Their reactions will inform your project and make it richer.  They are giving you something that is priceless and indispensable; they are sharing a part of themselves with you.  Without the subjects that inspire you, you would not exist as a photographer. Be sure to let that be known to any person, place, or thing you turn your camera towards.

All the images included in this article were from a series I shot on Side Show performers. I asked for each photograph and connected to each performer before taking the picture. I researched sideshow history and spent many weekends at Coney Island watching performances before I even asked to take a picture. One of these images was shot at the Venice Beach Freakshow, and I was sure to connect with them before I traveled there to ask if I could take photos.   I spent the time and effort shooting this because I’m passionate about Sideshow Performance Art, and identify with every performer I photographed. I have immense respect for these performers and what they do, and I hope that it shines through in the images. A well-known quote from Friedrich Nietzsche resonates with me: “If you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back into you”. Learn from your own work and from your interactions with your subject.  If your intentions were true and your work was thorough, your project will teach you more about yourself than you ever thought you would know.