This article prepares you for your next mission in the field, be it on your own or in a team.
It’s raining, and you have no waterproof bag for your equipment. You want to take a picture, but your camera batteries are down because it’s freezing cold. You realise you are missing a particular tool, and are too far away from the shops to get it. Whether you are a writer, a filmmaker or a photographer, you may have experienced these kinds of hiccups while reporting in the field. But fear not: we have asked 15 journalists and photographers from around Europe to share tips and tools on how to mitigate last-minute problems while reporting. We hope this article helps you prepare for your next mission in the field, be it on your own or in a team.
Useful tools for field reporting
A small headlamp could be useful for walking at night, or when there is no electricity. One reporter says: “[A headlamp] is essential if you work in the field at night in order to set your camera.” There are USB-chargeable headlamps that are light to carry and do the job just as well as heavier ones, which often require batteries.
Speaking of light, several journalists suggested: “Take a lighter with you, as you never know if you need to light up a cigarette for someone or a fire to cook.”
If you think you may have to overnight in what is not a four-star hotel, think of getting a sleeping bag liner that has been impregnated with insect repellent, which protects against bed bugs and grime. In some places, a mosquito net is a must (together with all mosquito-related objects and advice that any travel guide would suggest.)
Very versatile are cable ties. One reporter told us: “I always bring a bunch—they are super useful, from securing luggage to repairing stuff.”
Duct tape can also save you from unexpected failures. It repairs anything, from bags to tents, and it may fix an unstable tripod.
Another very useful tool to have with you is a power bank for re-charging your mobile phone and, if suitable, a laptop. There are solar-powered power banks available that can recharge your laptop. One journalist pointed out: “I think a minimum for a power bank is at least 20,000 mAh”.
Also useful in sunny climates is a small cooler. One particularly brave reporter says: “You can keep chocolate from melting and batteries from overheating. I also used my cooler for transporting breast milk when I took my young baby on a reporting trip.”
Ada Petriczko is a freelance journalist and editor from Poland. She reports on global social issues, gender and culture. As a regular contributor to the daily Gazeta Wyborcza, Ada has reported from India, Nepal and South America. A common thread through her stories is women. In 2017, she was one of the founding editors of NewsMavens—the first European newsroom run entirely by women, to counter the underrepresentation of female journalists in the media industry. She is a fellow of the International Women’s Media Foundation. She suggests…
In December 2019, I interviewed the iconic writer Arundhati Roy, my long-time hero. We were in her Delhi apartment, discussing the parallels between the rise of nationalism in India and Poland, when I realized that my recorder was out of battery. It made the saddest little sound and died. Luckily, I had my smartphone with me and could use it as a backup recorder. Ever since, I have made it my custom to bring a pack of spare batteries on assignments.
This may not be universally applicable, but I do not work with professional fixers and would not recommend it. I find that they tend to have repetitive patterns, bringing different reporters to the same places and the same people. When I was researching for my book on sex-selective abortions, I spent six months in the field, mostly in rural India. Prior to the trips, I would contact scientists, activists, public health experts and lawyers working on this subject and, whenever possible, we went to the field together. Such people may not know the ins and outs of reporting, but they are usually much more experienced and passionate about the subject than professional fixers.
Be a person first, then a reporter. Have lunch with your protagonists, drink your share of teas. Give it time. Don’t treat people like “contacts” or “sources.” Respect their boundaries. Ask them questions such as: “How did you feel when your daughter died?” Know when to stop. No information is worth someone’s trauma.
More specific if you handle cables and wires, “plastic-covered wires that tie bread-bags are excellent for microphone and headphone cables”, says one reporter. They added: “I always keep a few in my purse so that I can stop my cables turning into spaghetti just when I need to use the microphone to interview someone.”
Small hard cases for external drives are excellent for protecting delicate equipment like clip-microphones. Children's pencil cases are also great for this, says one journalist. You should play around with size and figure out how hard a case you need.
An absolute must is a water-proof bag to hold your equipment in case of an emergency. It will not only keep your cameras and other electronic devices dry, but also free from dust.
Photojournalists know that a plastic bag in which you can make a hole for your lens in case you need to shoot in the rain may be a saving grace.
Safety pins, needles and threads are “worth [bringing] on every trip, not just a reporting trip,” adds one journalist. You can use them not just to repair your shirt, but also to open your phone SIM.
Another reporter recommends bringing a pen drive: “I always have [one] with me. I often need to upload or download material from someone’s laptop during field work. And it is better not to rely on digital clouds, since you may find yourself without access to the internet.”
Small but mighty is a Swisscard: a little card with practical tools like scissors, tweezers or an LED light. Myself, I go big and I take a Swisstool, a heavier multitool kit that has proven very useful on several occasions (just remember not to take it with you in the cabin, if flying).
Jacopo Pasotti, an Italian geologist and award-winning journalist, photographer and writer, has focused on science and environmental reporting for the past 15 years. His work has been published in National Geographic, GEO, The Huffington Post, Repubblica, Vanity Fair, El Pais, Deutsche Welle and Science. He was shortlisted at the Earth Photo 2020 Competition by the Royal Geographical Society for his work on farmers’ solutions to environmental changes in Bangladesh. He suggests…
The first time I visited the Amazon 10 years ago, I didn’t pack enough waterproof bags. I brought a large one for my luggage, but forgot smaller ones for the reporting trips. On the first day, it rained so heavily that I was unable to take any notes. I had to keep my notebook underneath my jacket all the time, to protect it from soaking. The next day, I went to a local shop and bought kilos of bananas, just for the sake of the plastic bags they were packed in. Ever since then, I always carry many waterproof bags with me, of various sizes. They are also life-savers in dry areas, as they protect the gear from dust. I also insist that as a reporter you need to be particularly… flexible. This may not be a very tangible tip, but it is key. Especially if you work in developing regions, you need to be ready to find a compromise between your expectations and what people can deliver to you. Our mindset in the global North is all about productivity, schedules, facts and numbers, but this is not the way it works everywhere. Don’t get frustrated, stay humble.
I carry a sheet cotton bag with me to sleep everywhere or if the bed I am offered is not so clean.
This is a useful tip for female reporters: take a fake "wedding" or "engagement" ring with you. “It helps in some countries/with some sources who get too personal (i.e. ask you out or want to marry you to their son.) Your imaginary husband or fiancé will keep them at distance,” says one reporter. Another tip for female reporters: “If you're a new mom who is breastfeeding and on assignment: first, make sure you are prepared to pump anywhere. That means getting a pump that has a battery, and finding a way to cover your pump, for example with a scarf. Second, don't assume there will be running water wherever you go, so keep some wet wipes on you to be able clean up your supplies. Third, hydrate! You need more water when you are breastfeeding, and even more so when you are running around on an assignment.”
As they say: “better safe than sorry.” Always take a small first aid kit for scratches or cuts.
Finally, at the end of a day in the field you may tell your interviewee or people hosting you that you will send them your work. You know that in many situations this will not happen, for several reasons. Therefore, one reporter suggests you bring a polaroid or instant camera or a small portable printer if possible. This will allow you to donate some photos to the portrayed subjects, and will be a great present to many of your hosts.
Very useful for teams: “A set of Walkie-Talkies. Even though data plans and calls are usually cheap, working in the field and having a method of direct communication via talking may reduce miscommunication.”
I also always carry business cards with me. I am not used to distributing them, but in some countries it is a sort of a ritual to share cards, and when I don’t have one I feel kind of unprofessional.
Photocopies of your ID or passport. It’s important to have these at hand in case local police or other authorities ask you for proof of identification. I admit, I tend to carry a copy of my ID everywhere, but leave my passport in a safe place. A passport is too valuable an item to lose.
The first ‘must-have’ item is quite obvious and should never be missing from a toolkit: a notebook (the size and sort is a matter of preference) with a couple of pens or pencils. I carry both with me, but tend to prefer pencils to pens because they are not as affected by water.
Other tools that are a must in the field are: multiple sockets for various voltages. It is essential to charge your batteries (camera, phone, lights, etc...) anywhere in the world. And finally… insect repellent may really save your day in particular countries and environments.
Anna Liminowicz is freelance photojournalist and reporter from Poland. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, BuzzFeed News, Welt Am Sonntag, Les Echos, and Globe and Mail, among others. She is a Winner of The Krzysztof Miller Prize (2018) and has received two Grand Press Photo awards (2016, 2014) for her long-term project “Between the Blocks.” She is a member of Women Photograph. She suggests:
Research is paramount. Before the assignment, I read about the history of the place and the protagonists of the story. I often talk to the people who know the field thoroughly, for example to trip guides or historians. I look for symbols that are visually significant to the story and sometimes create symbolic maps of the field, which I follow while shooting. Whenever possible, I try to visit the place beforehand to check the time of the best light and note down potential frames. I also look for anchor points and symbolic objects in the space itself. Another tip would be to meticulously describe the pictures you submit to the editors. I try to be as comprehensive as possible and write a bit about the history of the place, the situation, the protagonists. This allows future editors—who may have nothing to do with the original material—to know precisely what the photograph is about. It saves everyone time and mistakes.
Tips for field reporting
Probably the most common advice is: have a back-up of nearly everything. One reporter, for example, says “I use both a Voice Recorder and a Mobile Recording App while conducting interviews, in order to have back-up copies.” Another goes further: “Have at least two backups. I have three of all my work—recordings, photos, documents.” Yet another reporter chimes in, saying: “Always make at least one backup of your images. Always carry two hard disks in two different places because if a bag is lost, you will still have a copy of your photos, videos, and records. If possible, always have a backup in your pocket. In any case, never put the two back-ups in the same bag, not even on the flight home.” Copy all the audio and video material you get on the ground and take (and upload) photos of receipts, tickets etc. to a hard disk or try to upload them on a cloud as you go. This is particularly useful if your equipment gets lost, or is stolen or damaged. As one journalist put it: “I take a hard drive with all photos with me at all times, while my laptop with all my material stays locked in my suitcase in the Airbnb”.
Some reporters have particular tips and tricks for long-haul flights: “When we return to international travel, my top tip is to arrive at the airport check-in desk early and ask for an aisle seat. This will allow you to get up regularly during a long flight and stretch your legs. Another top tip is to check if there is a shower facility at any airport you are traveling through. Many airports have showers and it's fantastic to freshen up halfway through a long-haul flight, or at your destination if you have to start work straight after you arrive. I sometimes allow myself access to a lounge, especially in local airports (though I did it in Dubai too). These are quieter and have access to drinks, WiFi, and plenty of plugs, which are all useful to have around if you are stuck at the airport for several hours.”
If you are working on an assignment, have a cover letter prepared for the people you would like to photograph. On the letterhead there should be a logo of the newspaper, magazine, NGO, or institution that you are working for, possibly in the language of the interlocutor. It may be useful in case you have to interact with more formal subjects.
Not only may objects fail, but a long day out may burn your energy. Some journalists therefore suggest bringing dextrose tablets with you to top up on your energy levels while in the field. Myself, when travelling to areas where I may not have access to fruits or vegetables, I take vitamins tablets with me. Energy bars also help, for example muesli bars or dry fruits bars, to sustain you during field work if it takes longer than expected.
Also take a scarf to cover up your head under the sun, on a dusty road, or inside a mosque (for female photojournalists).
Never forget that if you are going to work in cold environments, batteries are temperature sensitive. When it gets close to 0°C, they will drop their charge quite abruptly. A practical tip is to keep batteries close to your body, and extract them only when needed.
Consider the following tip carefully: “On a field trip try to take only used things. A new laptop or camera is sometimes a bad idea for a reporting trip.”
And I can only subscribe to the following tip: “Be mobile. A big suitcase is very good for an all-inclusive vacation, but not for work in the field.”
We hope this list of items, tips, and tools can be of benefit to you as you prepare for your next reporting trip. We are aware that this is not an exhaustive list: please do not hesitate to contact Jacopo Pasotti on Twitter (https://twitter.com/jacopaso) and share your views and suggestions, and we will add them to the list.