Pittsburgh Post Gazette photographer Stephanie Strasburg visited our class to discuss her experience photographing and reporting on addiction. Her pictures were powerful and emotional, but I was also impressed by her ability to tell the story verbally. Her recounting of the stories and the people she built relationships with, had some in the class tearing up. She spent a lot of time building relationships with the people she photographed, and her patience and hard work allowed her to get a more personal view. People who initially rejected the request to be photographed changed their minds after becoming more familiar with them. I could not believe she set up and recorded a meeting between the mother of a woman who passed away from overdose and the person the mother believed was responsible. The work she is doing with the young girl who lost her parents to addiction was particularly touching. Sometimes it’s more important for a person to tell their own story rather than have us tell it for them.
What I learned from Strasburg was the importance of patience and empathy. Sometimes picturesque moments happen randomly without warning. But more often than not great pictures come from hours, days, or even weeks of trust building. It’s important for people to know and truly believe that you are not just there to exploit their misfortune for money or occupational notoriety. As journalists we want people to know what’s happening and understand the severity of the situation. Unfortunately, it can be easy to get lost in the career aspect of reporting and forget that the story we want to tell belongs to someone, and we have to earn the privilege to tell that story. Some stories require us to earn a sources trust. The easiest way to do that is to care and be sincere. As often as I can, I have to remind myself to escape my own perspective. It will still be there when I come back. Empathy can’t be taught, but it is one of the most fundamental principles of good journalism. I am always wishing I was better at it.