Documenting VIP visits — can your photos be interesting?

Documenting VIP visits — can your photos be interesting?

Security is a vital but constant concern for VIP visits, whether you’re working with government officials or celebrities, local public figures or international personalities. With often creativity-crippling security constraints imposed on the VIPs, how can one go about documenting VIP visits in an interesting and engaging way?

At Arete, we work with many non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and UN agencies: the World Food Programme (WFP), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and Sightsavers — to name a few. We conduct our work on behalf of these organisations in countries many other agencies are unable to work in, including South Sudan, Somalia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo — as well as easier to access countries like Kenya and the United Kingdom.

Clako, a four-year-old polio survivor, is helped to stand up in her braces by Mia Farrow, UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, at her grandmother’s home in Ndjamena, Chad (Photo: Kate Holt / Arete / UNICEF)

Documenting VIP visits is an integral part of the story behind many of the NGOs projects. VIPs can range from Country Directors from these NGOs, to national and international politicians, but a unifying factor for these VIP visits is tightly controlled security; this can pose a problem for photojournalists when trying to capture images unless careful planning is undertaken.

Do all VIP visits have to look the same?

documenting VIP visits
Then-United Kingdom Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, poses with food supplies in Mogadishu, Somalia (Picture: Karel Prinsloo / Arete / UNICEF)

Security constraints can range from limiting the movement of the VIP to the interior of a building, because often large crowds of people can turn out to see the VIP, which can make it difficult for security services to protect from threats of terrorism or violence; through to tightly controlling the people that VIPs can meet and interact with.

Without a creative approach, these factors can result in a portfolio of repetitive and ordinary photos. As a result, this can limit the effectiveness of the story one is trying to tell. What can we do, as photojournalists and storytellers, to mitigate these limiting factors?

Use reportage

VIP visits can your photos be interesting
Then-WFP Somalia Director Laurent Bukera unveils a plaque during the official inauguration ceremony at the new WFP Area Office and Guest House in Garowe, Somalia. (Photo: Luis Tato / Arete / World Food Programme)

A reportage style of photography is particularly useful if there is a high level of security around the VIP, and the VIP is confined to the ‘white-walled’ interior of one building for a visit. Reportage photos are less formal and portray their characters in a pose-free way that occurs naturally. Essentially they represent the opposite of the staged photos that are often required at these events.

Although the backdrop may not be unique or interesting, using this style, photojournalists can capture some great shots of the VIPs naturally interacting with attendees and stakeholders. If one focuses on capturing these softer moments of human connection — it will go a long way to telling an interesting and deeper story that will garner more support for your cause.

Work with the crowd

Katy Perry pumps water on a visit to a primary school rebuilt by UNICEF in Ampihaonana, Madagascar (Photo: Kate Holt / Arete / UNICEF)

Although crowds of people can allow for the capturing of softer moments of human connection, they can also create a busy or messy background. This can detract from the image, making it much less visually engaging.

The shooting angle can play an important role in mitigating this. By shooting the subject from a lower angle, it is possible to frame the VIP on a less busy background — a good example of this is Kate Holt’s photo of Katy Perry above, which frames her head and shoulders against the blue sky.

Go beyond the shot-list

A shot-list often contains several staged events that involve the VIP, which are important to capture. These can range from ribbon cutting to shaking hands with stakeholders or giving a speech.

VIP visits can your photos be interesting
British MP Stephen Lloyd addresses health volunteers at the Wagai Health Centre in Siaya, Kenya (Photo: Karel Prinsloo / Arete / Malaria No More)

Stories about VIP visits can risk becoming repetitive and, therefore, uninteresting where only the same type of photos are captured. As a charity, foundation, or NGO, this will make it hard for your content to stand out from the crowd. This means avoiding lines up of VIPs and staged shots and employing the reportage style, as mentioned above.

An unripe watermelon sits on a farm in Laacdhere, near Garowe, Puntland State, Somalia (Photo: Luis Tato / Arete / World Food Programme)

This also means going beyond the set shot-list. At Arete our photojournalists take a different approach, expanding on the crucial shots that help tell more of the story. We seek out further elements of the story, whether it is a grouping of freshly grown watermelons that have sprouted as a result of the project; or a water tower donning the logo of the NGO or charity that funded it.

documenting VIP visits
A WFP-funded water tank is seen behind WFP Somalia Director Laurent Bukera and other WFP staff members in Laacdhere, near Garowe, Puntland State, Somalia (Photo: Luis Tato / Arete / World Food Programme)


Talk to the experts

Despite adverse conditions, including security precautions and politically volatile environments, our photojournalists at Arete can call on their extensive experience (some of which we have shared in this article) to capture engaging and informative stories.

We can also advise on whether it would be more suitable to use of our local photojournalists who will be familiar with the culture, language and context or a photojournalist that can travel into the country with the VIP depending on the requirements of the client. To talk to us further about how to tell an interesting story of a VIP visit — get in contact here.