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The roof covering the open pit of the mine. © Beren Patterson. All Rights Reserved. How to shoot a documentary photo story. This sequence goes through a series of eight photographs of gem miners in Sri Lanka.
Fixing the pump system that drains the water from the pit. © Beren Patterson. All Rights Reserved.
Lowering a basket into the pit. © Beren Patterson. All Rights Reserved.
Down the bottom of the mine. © Beren Patterson. All Rights Reserved.
Taking the stones to be washed. © Beren Patterson. All Rights Reserved.
Washing the gems. © Beren Patterson. All Rights Reserved.
Smoko after bringing a load of stones to the surface. © Beren Patterson. All Rights Reserved.
The gems ready to be sold to dealers. © Beren Patterson. All Rights Reserved.

Documentary: Telling a Story

A photo essay is one of the most interesting forms of photography. Not only does the viewer get greater insight into a subject matter than one photograph would often allow, but the photographer has an excuse to spend a long time with their subject - getting to know them, understanding what they do and why they do it.

I took this series of photographs in the small, gem-mining town of Ratnapura ('ratna' means gems, and 'pura' means town) in Sri Lanka. The first day I spent with the miners I didn't take a camera at all. I wanted them to get to know me and feel comfortable with me being around them. I also wanted to plan my story. I had set myself an exercise. I wanted to shoot the photographs in the sequence they would be shown. I wanted to use one lens, in this case a 35mm and I only wanted to show the miner's face in one photograph.

It was a fascinating day. The mines are dug straight down into the swamp to a level where the sediment contains many semi-precious gem stones. There are 4 men to each mining crew and that is their pit. Whatever they find the divide. Half goes to the mine owner, then the rest is divided equally between the team. They told me stories of lucky finds, urban legends amongst their communities, of miners who had found huge gems and retired on one find.

The next day I returned with my camera and started shooting. The previous night I had sketched out a story board. I knew the sequence. I knew the shots. These men lived life almost the same every working day. The patterns and processes were clear - I just had to illustrate them.

The first shot I knew had to set the scene. I had to show the mine's small, thatch roof covering the entrance. By having a man there I had added scale. This wasn't a huge, open-pit mine as seen in some countries. This was a very small, simple operation. I wanted the next shot needed to human involvement, the team effort.

The picture of the basket being lowered down the pit shows the level of sophistication. The only machinery involved was a diesel-powered water pump to drain the pit as they dug lower into the swamp - the rest of the tools with the exception of the spades were made of bamboo and wood.

The shot down the bottom of the pit was the hardest one. I didn't want to use a flash as this was part of my exercise. I wanted natural lighting, but I couldn't see clearly enough to focus properly. I got it right luckily and managed to hold the 3200 ASA film steady.

When the stones are brought to the surface they are taken away and washed in much the same way you would pan for gold, sluicing water around, removing the silt and leaving the heavy, semi-precious stones at the bottom of the basket.

After a long shift it was time for smoko. The men squatted down in the mud and had a break. They were constantly amused that I was interested in their work. What was everyday to them was fascinating to me and was surely a process that would soon disappear to be replaced by machinery and much larger scale operations.

My final shot of the series was to be in a local gem show room. I wanted to show the contrast between the neon-light showrooms with men dressed in shirts and ties and the men who actually did the mining. I thanked the miners profusely for putting up with me for two days and left. As I reached the edge of the swamp, caked in mud but happy with what I had achieved, a young man approached me and pulled from his pocket the cartoon section of a newspaper. Inside were some gems - this was so much better than some neon-light show room! Who cares about some stupid story board anyway?

The prints are all hand printed on a fibre based paper and sepia toned. I used just under 2 rolls of 100 ASA and half a dozen shots at 3200 ASA (the ones down the mine).

Common photographic terms explained