Lessons from reviewing applications to the Native and Everyday Projects Mentorship Program

As part of our mission to nurture and amplify the voices of emerging photographers from underrepresented communities, Native and The Everyday Projects recently launched our inaugural series of long-term educative mentorships by professional photographers and editors in the field of documentary and editorial photography.

Parishioners fervently pray during a mass in the Yeoville suburb of Johannesburg, South Africa. From the project “Terminus : Yeoville.” Photo by Miora Rajaonary, @miorarajaonary

During winter break, I joined Danielle Villasana of The Everyday Projects and Laura Béltran Villamizar of Native in selecting participants to our inaugural joint mentorship program. We were delighted to have a diverse pool of roughly 200 applicants to this first effort — Emree Weaver, assistant editor at Native, organized the applicant material; Danielle and Laura made the first pass; and then I worked with the latter two to select 22 people from a pool of more than 60.

It was no easy task — the quality of the applications was extremely high. As someone who is increasingly in the role of an editor and project manager, I was deeply inspired by the work of these young and early-career photographers. I could tell they were experimenting, honing their craft, and having fun while they did it. And I could tell that they are passionate about their work. Going through their portfolios made me want to pick up a camera, walk outside, and make pictures.

“Gratitude is all that I have, I don’t have a serious illness but I have another aspect that I’ve lost to refind myself. I don’t want another woman to feel as alone as I did. Transparency is essential on my end.” From the project “All is Not Lost” documenting Seets, a woman with the rare hair loss condition Alopecia Areata. Photo by Amrita Chandradas, @amritachandradas

I started jotting down my observations as I went. Some lessons, some trends, perhaps some things to think about for those learning photography and those working to diversify our field. A few insights:

1. Find an Editor

Photographers need to learn how to edit, and to find a second pair of eyes on their work. I could say “young” photographers here, but truthfully, it is almost all of us. There’s an old rule: never edit your own work. Most if not all of the portfolios we received had great photography, but often their best work was buried, or surrounded by weaker images, or repetitive. Sometimes I would scroll through half of a person’s portfolio thinking “no, no, no” before hitting on some real gems. This also probably means I missed a lot of gems, though.

Here’s an example of someone doing it right — have a look here at the first, second, and fifth images of Néha Hirve’s portfolio. Right away, I am intrigued. I can tell that she can make pictures that are visually strong and engaging, and even more important, she has managed to surprise me, to walk that delicate line between supplying me with information while also making me ask questions, all at once. And, by the fifth picture, she has shown me that she’s able to get inside people’s spaces, to make her subjects comfortable with her, and make pictures that have some intimacy to them.

From top, left to right: 1) Digging holes to plant new saplings. Since 2003, volunteers members of the Sadhana community have been working to re-plant the area’s indigenous Tropical Dry Evergreen Forest. 2) A newly planted patch of land. 3) Ciaran in the library. The library and the free store rely on a gift economy-there is no money involved, people take and give as they see fit. From the project “Full Shade / Half Sun.” Photos by Néha Hirve, @nehahirve

Her edit of a story on a reforestation community in a rural part of Tamil Nadu, India continued in this way, dancing back and forth from whimsical, thought-provoking imagery, environmental photos that gave me a sense of place, and intimate portraits that made everything feel concrete as I got to know these people through Néha’s work. It was consistent without feeling repetitive, and all of the photos were strong.

2. Photography is a broad concept; explore the possibilities

The variety of options available to us as photographers amazes me. Our applicants had a range of innovative approaches. Photography is not dead, and it is not static.

Collected pictures of the dead and missing; victims of an armed conflict initiated by the Communist Party of Peru, known as the Shining Path, and the response of the State, in the 1980s and 1990s. The extended conflict resulted in tens of thousands of dead and disappeared in the towns of Uchu, Accomarca, Lucanmarca, and Cayara, Peru. From the project “Ayacucho.” Photo by Ángela Ponce, @barrios.altos

I’m speaking not only to the difference between classic reportage and portrait driven stories, or between clean medium format and messy black and white (although those styles and many more were represented). Our applicants wrote and even painted on their photos, or had the people they photographed write on them; they made typologic portraits; they used double exposures; they toyed with ideas of memory by putting old family photos over modern landscapes. They combined analog and digital practice. And of course, many of them are very skilled documentary photo essayists. They didn’t originate any of these styles, but they took ownership of them in a way that felt personal, urgent, and necessary. We have so many options in our toolkit that we can use when the story calls for it.

From top, left to right: 1) A portrait of a refugee from Yemen, currently living in the UK. 2) A portait of Yasmeen from Gaza. Yasmeen escaped from war in Gaza and currently lives with her husband in the UK. 3) A portrait of Fady from Palestine, currently living in the UK. 4) A refugee’s letter to the photographer Thana Faroq, who asked her subjects to send her letters on their experiences seeking shelter in Europe. “Each of these letters reveals a frozen image in each of these person’s life. It’s a photo project actually and I want these letter to illuminate it with a with a particular context, connecting the past to the present and the present to the past.” From the project “My Passport is Unlucky.” Photos by Thana Faroq, @thanafaroq7

3. Don’t try to guess what people want to see

Mixed in with more innovative approaches, we found the occasional portfolio that, while comprised of strong photography, was focused on problems (and solutions) via a focus on misery. Sad children staring off into the distance in dusty slums, the trappings of poverty — a kind of photojournalistic cliché that I feel many of the Everyday feeds have successfully re-visualized. Photojournalism was popularized in the Global North, and the majority of clients are based there. When asking for portfolios from the Global South, one has to wonder if this emulation is based on photographers very passionately wanting to tell stories of the problems in their own backyards, or if it is market-driven, with the hope of securing assignments. I don’t mean to be critical; just wondering aloud, and pondering the possible reasons.

In this story by Victor Zea Diaz (one of two photographers I am excited to mentor in this program), I was struck by the strength of the hip hop artists that Victor photographs, and the community organizing he describes: “This movement brings their rhymes to action; they are grouped into different collectives committed to their community in the different districts of Lima.”

From left to right: 1) Pedro Mosqueira aka Pedro Mo, founder of the ComitePokoflo crew and member of the collective “Hip Hop al parque” (“HipHop to the Park“ in English), sings together with his followers at an event in the Cusco neighborhood of Lima, Peru. 2) A b-girl makes a pirouette on Huascaran street in the La Victoria neighborhood of Lima, Peru. The area is considered a red zone in Lima, known for drug trafficking. This event, held by the collective “We are Seeds”, offered Hip Hop workshops to area children. From the project “We Don’t Rap, We Make Family.” Photos by Victor Zea Diaz, @victorz3a

4. The world is getting smaller — search far and wide for influences even as you refine your own creative voice

It is striking to notice the similarities that occur between photographers of a geographic region. For example: several Iranian photographers were going for messy and contrasty black and white in their portfolios. Several portfolios from the Indian subcontinent had a washed-out, desaturated look reminiscent of artists like Sarker Protick. It’s important (and natural) to learn from the people around you; but also, the Internet exists. It’s important to look beyond borders for inspiration in the search for one’s own voice.

Thank you again to everyone who applied for this program. The interest alone is certainly evidence of the need for us to continue to work toward more training and mentorship opportunities worldwide. I feel energized and hopeful as we now dive into our work, helping the mentees to refine their ideas and hone their craft. I’m looking forward to watching these 22 voices breathe new life into our industry, and personally, I’m looking forward to having two mentees continue to inspire me to walk outside with my camera.

Children attending a library session in “The Smallest Library” in Africa in the Mugure slums, Nairobi, Kenya. The Smallest Library is an initiative started by Cyril Peter Otieno. With love and passion for education, Otieno saw the need to fill the education gap in his community. Photos by Biko Wesa, @bikowesa

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This article is published by Re-Picture, an online publication of The Everyday Projects. The Everyday Projects is a network of journalists, photographers, and artists who have built everyday social media narratives that delight, surprise, and inform as they confront stubborn misperceptions. We believe in developing visual literacy skills that can change the way we see the world by challenging stereotypes. Find out more about The Everyday Projects here or feel free to get in touch: contact@everydayprojects.org.