Reflections from a Chicago Photojournalist: How I Document Sadness

Chicago documentary photographer Candice Cusic

(Photo by Candice C. Cusic/The Chicago Tribune)

I was asked by Crixeo Magazine to write about tragedy and the emotional toll it takes on documentary photographers.

I’ve been a photographer all my life and I love documenting emotion.  Raw, real and at times, uncomfortable.  I love getting close, sharing a bond and capturing a great moment.

I can’t bond with a football player sprinting down the field, so shooting sports never interested me.

My training ground was in college, studying Photojournalism at UNC-CH.  I documented a homeless family, with a crack-addicted mother, for four years.   My photographs were from the poorest communities, a shocking contrast to my own childhood.

“When are you going to photograph something happy?” my mother asked me, right before I spent an entire summer documenting a prison for boys.

I loved shooting what others didn’t see.  If it was hidden, and horrible, I wanted to document it.  My mom was right.  At that time, I didn’t want to shoot Kodak smiles and birthday parties.

After graduating college, I became a Photojournalist and worked for the Chicago Tribune for 11 years.  My life as a photojournalist gave me variety.  I shot lots of sadness with some happy tossed in.

But nothing could truly prepare me for two 20-day trips I made to Nagapattinam, Tamil Nadu, India to document their recovery after being hit by a devastating Tsunami in 2004.

How do you photograph people who have lost everything and everyone?

Slowly.  With compassion.  Smile.  Get close.  Wait.  Smile more.  Get closer.  Closer.

You must give yourself to your subjects if you expect anything from them in return.

I could have been an indifferent observer.  I could have stood far away.  I could have protected my heart.

But that’s not me.

I worked sunrises and sunsets.  I drank deliciously sweet hot coffee from a street vendor each morning, and listened to loud black crows that had set up camp in the trees.  The lovely residents of this village were living in cardboard tents, crammed tightly inside makeshift rooms while they waited for the government to tell them what their options were.

I spent time.  Being present.  Noticed.  The white girl who smiled.  Spending time not shooting is one of the best ways to get access.

I stood out in India, especially being a woman with large clunky cameras around my neck.

But I had to get close to tell the story.  Often working alone, without an interpreter.

Smiles mean the same thing in every language.

The camera is a shield, but it’s not thick enough to stop feeling. It’s a natural instinct to continue to work on the story, to dig in and sift through its layers.  You will feel emotional, so don’t hide from it.  Get it out.

Then get closer and do your job.


Candice C. Cusic has taught Photojournalism as an Adjunct Instructor at Northwestern University for over a decade, and teaches wedding photographers how to capture moments at her Moment-Driven Workshop.  You can follow her wedding photojournalism at CusicPhoto.com.

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