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On Assignment: A Photographic Mission to Nicaragua

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In my previous "On Assignment" article I discussed the process of photographing the Pope in Rome, as well as some tips for success on such an important assignment. This time, I'll talk about doing photojournalism in an extremely poor country, as well as how things differed with far less equipment and a much smaller budget.

Republished Tutorial

Every few weeks, we revisit some of our reader's favorite posts from throughout the history of the site. This tutorial was first published in December of 2010.


Backstory

At the time, 2007, Nicaragua was the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, only surpassed by Haiti. Due to the extremely low income, the majority of children must drop out of school to work and support their parents and families. This leaves approximately 75% of the population with an education level below the 5th grade (12 to 13 years old).

Nicaragua, like many former colonies throughout the world, exports cash crops and raw materials to the developed nations which further refine, consume, and/or resell the enhanced products and services back to them. These exports generate little income and perpetuate the cycle of generations lacking education because there isn't enough money to educate oneself without starving.

To help alleviate some of the suffering and to establish a helpline between various Nicaraguan communities and Catholic parishes in the U.S., the Archdiocese of Miami sent a contingent of missionaries to assist and assess the need of the people in various cities and towns around the impoverished country. I was slated to shadow them and provide the photography that depicted what they saw: a mix of despair and hope.


The Tools

Looking back, I sometimes wish I had the equipment I have now at my disposal for my Nicaragua assignment. However, I realize that I had practically everything I needed to do an excellent job. Having flagship cameras and top-notch software is excellent, but they're just tools. It is your knowledge of your tools, your ability to problem solve, express your vision creatively, and work professionally that matters most.

  • Canon EOS 30D
  • Nikkormat FTn with a 50mm f/2.8 lens
  • Canon EF 28-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM lens
  • Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 USM lens

This is all the "camera" I had with me for two weeks. Weather-sealing? Nope. It was risky, but I had a lot of faith my Canon EOS 30D would survive the heat and humidity of Nicaragua because I've worked with it extensively without a problem in the heat and humidity of Miami. Still, I brought my fully manual film camera with 10 rolls of Fuji Pro 400H color film should the daily 104°F (40°C) temperatures and 94% humidity cause problems.

At the time, I trusted my 1965-era Nikkormat more than my digital Canon because it was fully manual. Also, it came from a line of cameras that documented the Vietnam War. So, I knew it could deal with the tropical climate Nicaragua had to offer. The Nikkormat would be there if my Canon failed or I was in too dangerous an area to be flashing an expensive-looking camera.

I ended up using the film camera twice due to security reasons. One was with the Sisters of Charity and another was in an area known as "Los Torres". Los Torres is so poor and dangerous that even the local priest isn't safe. "Life is not valued here," the priest told me. That was his hint to leave the Canon out of sight.

This wasn't a problem because I knew my Nikkormat and Fuji Pro 400H film like the back of my hand. Yes, I was limited to ISO400 which caused me to use slow shutter speeds, but it performed beautifully and I'm happy I had the opportunity to do some "old school" work (see below).

nicaragua photography
nicaragua photography
nicaragua photography
nicaragua photography
nicaragua photography

The Software

I didn't have Photo Mechanic at the time, and boy I wish I did. I downloaded the images directly from my camera using the Canon Utility, sorting them using Windows Explorer and a lot of "Cut & Paste". Post-processing was done in Photoshop CS2.

I transferred my captions and notes from my note pads and digital voice-recorder, Sony ICD-320, using MS Word. I transmitted using Yousendit.com. Now, Photo Mechanic handles around 95% of images with Photoshop coming into play only if I need to make corrections.

All this was done on an already way outdated Dell Inspiron 5100. I didn't have a DVD burner, just the laptop's internal CD-RW drive. So my daily 6 to 8GB of photos translated to a lot of CD-Rs, taking literally hours each night to burn. Each night I backed up my photos to my laptop and burned them onto CDs. I also had back-up cables and an additional battery for my laptop.

Wirelessly transmitting was not happening. The only thing scarcer in Nicaragua than clean, running water, and electricity, is the Internet. And the only thing scarcer than that is wireless Internet! This time, I had to have everything ready to be transmitted once I got back to the United States. At the end of a long assignment, you don't want to be sorting things out that could have been done before. You'll be very tired. So, do yourself a favor and handle all that tedious stuff before you leave on assignment and as you organize.


Attire and Bags

Nicaragua is a hot, humid place, and during the summer, torrential rains occur almost daily. So, I had to dress for it. Because of the wet climate, I invested in a pair of Merrell Continuum shoes and a handful of Underarmor undergarments. I needed shoes that would keep my feet dry, had good grip, were comfortable, durable, and most of all: antimicrobial.

The Underarmor gear kept me dry and cool and kept my outer clothes fresher so I didn't have to change them or wash them as much. Also, because they dry quickly, hand-washing wasn't a worry because they'd be ready to wear in just a few hours. That meant fewer clothes to be packed, leaving room for souvenirs.

Back then I didn't have a fancy Tenba or Thinktank Photo bag. I had a laptop bag, Canon 100DG bag, some sling pouch from Target, and an ordinary backpack for school. I went to the local hunting store and got some high-quality waterproofing spray and gave each bag two coats inside and out.

It didn't make them fully waterproof, but they did resist soaking through when I blasted them with my garden hose. At least I knew my stuff would be safe for a few minutes while I scrambled for shelter or busted out the emergency one-size-fits-all raincoat.

The Canon bag held my camera equipment and the laptop bag held the computer, cables, software discs, and tons of blank CD-R discs. The sling held any lens that wasn't camera-mounted, a note pad, and my voice-recorder. The backpack was for daily use and stored my camera equipment when not in use as well as water bottles, toiletries, or souvenirs.

Toiletries are life-savers. Hunting/Camping stores have little kits that give you a lot bang for your buck and are perfect for the occasional emergency pit stop. Keep it with you at all times, inside a Zip Lock bag for waterproofing. A little luxury goes a long way. It will not only keep you cleaner than you otherwise may be, but it will also improve your mood. Don't ask, just trust me.


Protection

Nicaragua is a poor country and I wasn't going to be holed-up in a world-class resort. I was going to be regularly in the poorest and occasionally in the most dangerous sections of Nicaragua. So, protecting my health, identity, and equipment — in that order — was paramount. Getting seriously sick is bad enough, getting sick in one of the poorest countries in the world ... just don't.

Before I left I updated any vaccines that needed updating and I got a tetanus shot. I packed non-liquid meds in my carry-on and any liquids/gels into my checked luggage. I also packed sports-grade sunscreen because I would be sweating a lot as well as Cutter Outdoorsman insect repellent (30% DEET). Don't pack any aerosol sprays because they may get confiscated. So, my repellent was pump-action.

To protect my identity, I made photocopies of my driver's license, itinerary, and passport keeping one copy of each on my person, one back in the U.S., and the originals in a secure location at the home-base. Whatever ID or money I had on me, I put in a money belt that could be easily tucked into my pants.

An added layer of security is to blend in. There is no need to draw attention to myself by looking like a tourist or flashing my camera about if I'm not actively photographing. I wore simple T-shirts and shorts and kept my camera out of sight until I was using it. I also stuck close to the group and did not stray to avoid getting lost.

Finally, but most importantly: Don't drink the water!

nicaragua photography

Not drinking the local water supply is just a general rule when traveling to any poor country. Be cautious where you eat - especially if drinking coffee, eating fresh greens/vegetables, or having an iced beverage. I used a supply of bottled water for drinking and brushing my teeth.

All these precautions aren't paranoia or hypochondria, it is just insurance. My editors were relying on me and paying me to photograph. I cannot do that while imprisoned, on toilet, or in a hospital.


Preparation & the Shot List

nicaragua photography

As with any photo journalism assignment, good research and preparation is the bulk of the effort that goes into getting the photograph. Get on official sites to learn about Nicaragua and the people. The U.S. State Department and the CIA World Factbook, the U.N., and other authoritative sites will help give you a geopolitical, economic, and social gist of what to expect.

This also helps to get some context if you're tasked with writing articles. It cuts down on post-production, captioning, and writing if you have basic facts and context already in hand.

I was lucky to have full photographic freedom on this assignment. Editors can sometimes have tunnel vision and pigeon-hole their photographer's focus, causing them to miss some great stuff. Although my editor never really did that, I wanted to make sure the chance didn't happen. However, that didn't exempt me from sending in a mixed bag of my best.

Here is a list of shots you'd want to submit:

  • Overall area, such as the landscape
  • Portraits
  • Emotion
  • Missionaries in action
  • Meetings with local leaders
  • Action-Reaction

The important part is to ensure your photographs tell the story. The angles, mood, and composition that work best are the one's which transport the viewer to the location. Does the photo tell the story? Does it subconsciously trigger the other senses and the imagination?

nicaragua photography
nicaragua photography
nicaragua photography
nicaragua photography
nicaragua photography
nicaragua photography

It was difficult on this assignment to find any "happy natives" because the reality was that the people the missionaries encountered weren't happy at all. However, it was up to me to find any glimmer of hope and happiness these people had. It would offset the desperation that at times overwhelmed the missionaries. I even got misty-eyed a few times, but had to keep shooting.

nicaragua photography

File & Power Management

Consistent electricity isn't commonplace in Nicaragua and periodically shuts off for hours daily. Although my base of operations was located in a fairly well-to-do area, electricity would still come and go. At the end of each day, I would immediately put all my batteries to recharge. I would also double back-up the day's images onto my hard drive and to discs. I would also make another copy of the edits I would be transmitting once I got back home. Finally, I would write on paper which image numbers were part of that cut and which voice-recording and caption was associated with it.

Having limited resources is no excuse for not covering your ass (C.Y.A.)!

I managed my files by using a naming convention, as well as a consistent folder structure. For my files I used "yyyymmdd_city_filename". I sorted the folders by date (yyyymmdd), city, and then location (school, church, etc.)

Inside each folder I placed a copy of relevant voice-recordings, captions, articles, and notes. This helped me keep track and be ready to upload quickly and easily later on. This was all then burned to discs along with another copy of the bulk of files straight from the camera. It was a bit of overkill, but being very organized and little paranoid will make your job a lot less frustrating.

By the end of the assignment I ended up with around 50 CD-R discs containing every photo I took, and the edited files I sent to my newspaper's server. Backing up my work took nearly as long as shooting it because of the limited resources I had at the time, but it was necessary. My days, unlike the missionaries, began at 6:00am and ended around 3:00am for two weeks.

nicaragua photography

A final part of power management is management of fatigue. Pulling really long days in hot humidity with the creative juices constantly flowing and constantly hunting for "the shot" can really wear on you. Keep yourself well hydrated and fed and know your personal limits regarding exposure and lack of rest. So, whenever there was downtime, I rested. Chow time, I ate. Done with recharging batteries and backing up images, immediately to sleep.


Always Room for Improvement

Although by that time, I had built up a body of work and reputation to be sent on this foreign assignment, and I did a great job, there are always things I can do to improve. Improvement doesn't necessarily have to be photographic technical skills, but it can be the plethora of other things that contribute to bettering your experience and your end-product. For me, I had to find a better workflow when getting my images from the camera to their destination folders. I was working on a computer that could barely handle the throughput, but my workflow wasn't efficient as it could be.

I had invested a lot in my photographic skills and a nice amount (what I could afford) on equipment. However, I ignored the post-processing and image management end during that time of investment. Reminiscing about the 3 or 4 hours I spent sitting on a semi-clean, chilly tile floor backing up and organizing the day's images I saw how horribly inefficient my workflow was.

As a photo journalist, you're only as good as your next photograph. So, seriously think about all the things that go into each image you make and learn ways to make the next image better. Could it be technical skills? Composition? Workflow? Equipment? or that elusive je ne sais qois?


Conclusion

I hope you enjoyed this article about my experience on my first international assignment and the displayed photos. This article will hopefully help you on your first international assignment, or even your next one.

Great things can be done, and lessons learned, when you work with what you've got. Sometimes as photographers we feel we just don't have enough tools at our disposal. We need to constantly remind ourselves that the most important and best piece of photographic equipment is the 10 inches (25.4cm) behind the camera.

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