Collecting Stories With Program vs Communications Staff

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Women near Butare, Rwanda | Photo © Laura Elizabeth Pohl

Women help each other harvest near Butare, Rwanda | Photo by Laura Elizabeth Pohl for ActionAid

Before I started freelancing for NGOs last year, I firmly believed that given a choice, communications professionals should always be the ones collecting stories and aiding in the gathering of stories. Now, after having worked on the ground numerous times with program staff, I’ve changed my mind. Here are my opinions on working with program and communications staffers on stories.

Benefits of collecting stories with program staffers:

  • They know the programs inside and out. This is a tremendous help when I have questions about what’s happening around me.
  • They often have deep and strong working relationships with other program staffers who can help me get access to certain situations or people I may need to photograph or film.
  • They usually have a good grasp of what storytelling involves, and due to their familiarity with the programs, they often make well-informed suggestions about scenes I can film or people I can talk with.

Benefits of collecting stories with communications staffers:

  • They understand exactly what I need – nice light, good talkers, etc. – and how much time it takes to gather quotes or photograph and film people (a lot of time).
  • They know their organization’s photo and video guidelines inside and out and can help me navigate sensitive situations.
  • We can work together to collect story material and brainstorm ways to photograph, film or write a story that I probably wouldn’t have thought of on my own.

Any thoughts on this? Please add them in the comments below.


Bree says:

April 26, 2014 at 5:56 am

I wholeheartedly agree. I am a long-term graphic designer with an Australian based NGO that works in many countries overseas. I work only with professional photographers that truly understand our work, subscribe to our ethos, are risk and security aware, culturally sensitive, and have had child protection training. They must be willing to rough it and spend time getting to know our people and partners before a shoot. Relationships and trust are extremely important. We would never send out a photographer cold, as it could be a risk to our organisation and reputation. Bad photos and stories that miss the point and or could cause offense can do a lot of damage. Language use is also critical. A traveling photographer once approached us in-country and offered to do some shoots. Unfortunately a lot of the photos were unable be be used because she didn’t have the understanding she thought she did. I most often used local photographers or very experienced NGO or photojournalism photographers.


Bree says:

April 26, 2014 at 5:59 am

Also, I’d be in for a facebook discussion group?


Laura Elizabeth Pohl says:

May 4, 2014 at 8:19 pm

Thanks for your comments, Bree. I understand where you’re coming from.

As for a Facebook group, let me see if I can find the time!


Laura says:

May 15, 2014 at 12:19 am

I am now a freelance photographer/visual storyteller working for NGOs but used to work as a communications member of staff for a number of NGOs. I think the answer to this question depends entirely on the type of job I am being hired for but the ideal situation is being briefed really well by one of the NGO’s communicators so that I understand their vision, style and project aims and then, where possible, be ably assisted by a member of the program team on the ground. As you say the program team often have a lot more in depth knowledge of the people and places you will be collecting the stories. Even better when the program person lives and works in the area! Small NGOs are sometimes much better at collaborating between departments as the communicators and program staff tend to work more closely together.


David Blumenfeld says:

July 21, 2014 at 9:52 am

Hi Laura,

We are a production company, based in Israel, but mainly working in Africa and India. I believe each has benefits and disadvantages. I usually have the program people work with the NGO media team to help locate and screen several possible subjects, and send us videos from their phones, etc. asking a few basic questions and then we narrow those down and do some final screening when we arrive…SOmetimes the program people may not understand how the video will be used and the best story to illustrate according to the usage of the video (Education…fundraising…etc).

Anyway, here is a link to some of our work. Please let us know if you are ever in need of proposals for possible productions. Thanks.

David Blumenfeld


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