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Investigative Photography: Supporting a Story with Images

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There’s nothing like a good photographer to bring alive an investigative story. One of the worst crimes that investigative journalists commit is spending months on a great story, and then only minutes on the presentation. Working with photojournalists who know their craft (along with designers and graphic artists) can be one of the real pleasures of putting a big project together.

We’re fortunate that a new handbook on using photography for investigations was just published: Investigative Photography: Supporting a Story with Pictures, by CJ Clarke, Damien Spleeters, and Juliet Ferguson. This comes from the good folks at the UK’s Centre for Investigative Journalism, based at City University in London, and was launched earlier this month at the CIJ Annual Summer School.

We’re grateful to the CIJ for allowing us to publish the excerpt below. You’ll find useful tips for photographing documents, storing images, and recovering lost information. And in the guide itself, there’s a lengthy section for correspondents in conflict or post-conflict areas on how to take authoritative photos of firearms. 

“The manual has been written for journalists, NGO workers, and those for whom photographs could be useful to support their work,” its authors explain. “It is not a guide to taking better pictures, but how to use the camera for evidence gathering.” How do you integrate forensic photography into an investigative project? Here’s your introduction…  

                                                                                                                          — The Editors

Photographing Documents

When taking pictures of documents, the most important thing is that the words are readable and as clear as possible. Ideally you’d need a camera that you can shoot with in RAW or use film. The most important element is the lighting, especially if you are photographing non-flat surfaces such as a documents held together or book pages. Photograph in as close as you can get to natural lighting and avoid anything – flash, fluorescent light – that will cause glare and prevent the writing being legible.

If you are able to remove documents to photograph them, then use a tripod, balancing it so that the camera is looking directly down on the document without the legs getting in the way. You can do this by pushing back two of the legs while extending the third and finding something to balance it on.

If you are taking multiple, single, documents, focus the camera for one, and mark on the table where the edges come, so you can simply replace with the next document to photograph without the need for refocusing. If the papers are held together or in a book, this won’t work and you will have to focus separately, but can still use the marks as a guide as to where to put the documents.

If you have to use a more basic camera or can’t remove the documents to photograph them using a tripod, consider taking shots of part of the page then putting them together afterwards. Shoot in colour, even if your camera offers an option for black and white, as the results will be much clearer.

Storing your Images

It is vitally important that you keep a back-up copy of all your images and protect yourself in the case of a hard disk failure.  Most photographers keep a second back-up hard disk of their work and store it off site.  Some even keep a third and fourth hard disk or DVD back-up. If you are using a digital camera to take you images, make sure you always keep a copy of the RAW or jpg file and make as few as changes as possible to your image and any changes should be solely to improve picture quality.

Digital Workflow Best Practices

File formats

Most digital cameras use a variety of file formats. The most common is JPG/JPEG format. Some cameras use a format called RAW. If your camera gives you the option, always select RAW for shooting images this is the highest quality for images (but also largest file size). Because of the nature of RAW files you can open them and make changes as many times as you want and they will never deteriorate – hence their advantage for recording evidence.

The downside is that you will need to convert them into a format that can be universally read – a TIFF or JPG – before you can use them and so will need photo editing software. It is possible, on the more expensive cameras, to shoot RAW and JPGs at the same time, so if you need to send an image – either for a deadline or for security reasons, then do this.

For cheaper cameras and camera phones, JPGs are the only option, so always ensure you keep the original and work from a copy. The more times you open and work on a jpg the greater the deterioration.

To view, edit, email and print your photos you will need to transfer them from the camera to your computer. This should be done regularly so you don’t lose the images. For more sensitive images or if there is a chance that they will be confiscated, download them at the first possible opportunity.

File Naming

To ensure your pictures can stand as evidence, it is a good idea to develop a standard workflow by saving original digital images to the hard drive or CD; retaining the original file format; making digital files as read-only; and renaming enhanced digital files. To ensure you accurately archive and can keep track of your files it is important you use consistent file names that let you the key information you need to find and identify and image and link it back, if necessary, to the original. A good system for naming your files will include the: date; project name; original file reference; and sequence number.

Keeping Your Images Safe

Encryption reduces the risk of keeping confidential data, but does not eliminate it. In some countries, the act of encryption itself is illegal and the use of encryption software could give the authorities enough of a pretext to investigate your or your organisation. If you do decide to use encryption to protect your work, consider using TrueCrypt, which works by creating a ‘hidden volume’ inside your already encrypted volume.

Recovering Lost Information

Unless they have been over-written or wiped completely clean from the memory card, images can be retried.  So if you are forced to delete your images from you memory card, or do so for security reasons, they can still be retrieved providing you don’t continue to use the card.

You will need software in order to retrieve the images, try: DataRescue’s PhotoRescueDataRecoveryWizard, or SanDisk’s RescuePro. Both of the above are relatively low-cost or offer free versions, and will restore images and data to your computer’s memory to avoid further risk to your disc. Note: it is harder to restore images that you have erased by formatting the disc, rather than deleting the images. If you want to restore images on a formatted disc you’ll need a more powerful version of the software.

Getting Your Images Out

Ideally, you’ll want to get any images you’ve taken to your newsdesk or organisation as quickly as possible. If your images are low-resolution jpegs, you can simply email them. For RAW images and larger files that are too big to email, try an online file sharing service like You Send It.

As ever, you should consider the security of your situation and ensure you keep yourself and your images safe.  Your decision to encrypt files before sending, or even risk sending them at all depends on the environment you are working.  If it is too dangerous to send files online, consider ways of keeping safe the memory card or film.

Wiping Securely

As seen in the previous section, when you erase images from a memory card, they aren’t really gone and even formatting a card doesn’t guarantee their complete removal. Generally this is a good thing as you can often get back lost images. However, there are times when you may want images completely removed from a card. The simplest way to do this is to format the card and then fill the card with new shots this will overwrite any remnants of images and remove all traces of what was previously there.

There is software available – SanDisk for example – that will completely and permanently remove data from memory cards. Wiping cards is a complex process and can take a long time, also, once wiped or overwritten, there is no way of recovering the data, so be absolutely sure this is what you want to do.

The same applies to data that you’ve downloaded onto a computer hard drive, if you want to ensure it has been permanently removed, free software is available that will let you do this: Eraser.

How To Take Proper Pictures of Firearms

Foreign correspondents in conflict or post-conflict areas are often confronted with all kinds of weapons, ammunition, remnants and ordnance that may constitute essential pieces of evidence. It is very important to document their presence thoroughly.

It’s great if you manage to take a clear picture of a firearm, but it might not be enough to get the whole story.

  • If you can, take a global, neutral and clear picture of the item without obstruction by putting it on the ground and framing it from above, for example.
  • Take high resolution photos of both sides of the weapon, allowing for later zooming.
  • It’s always good to put a reference object in the frame, especially for uncommon firearms, or rare variations, in order to be able to determine the scale later.
  • Check for any markings on the weapons and take clear pictures of them: factory markings, seals, serial numbers, calibre, barcodes, proof marks, etc. They are sometimes not easy to spot (check under the sights, and on the barrel), and there can be more than one, so check thoroughly and as long as you are allowed to. It’s also important to take shots of selector markings, safety markings, and sight markings. Remember where the markings are located on the weapons.
  • Also take a picture of the arm in context, with the combatant, for example. This will give a better idea of the whole environment in which the firearm was found.

About the Authors

CJ ClarkeCJ Clarke is an award winning filmmaker and photographer. He has previously worked for NGOs and covered issues such as HIV in Romania and poverty in Sri Lanka, and he currently works for Save the Children. His work has appeared in numerous publications, including The Guardian and The Sunday Times.


Juliet FergusonJuliet Ferguson is a photographer and journalist living in London. She has recently completed a post-graduate certificate in photography at Central Saint Martins School of Art. She has written and photographed articles for travel magazines but is now focusing on fine art and abstract work.


damien-spleetersDamien Spleeters is a freelance journalist based in Belgium. Covering conflicts, he is also investigating the proliferation of Belgian small arms and the activities of Belgian arms brokers.


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