With 20 years of photojournalism under his belt, San Francisco-based photographer David Paul Morris presents a personal, passionate side to every story he covers. That fervor—combined with the knack for storytelling with a single image—keeps his assignments coming for publications such as Newsweek, National Geographic, and People.
When asked what keeps his clients coming back for more, Morris responds, “I can spot the best light, the best angle, and the best composition to almost intuitively get a good shot in the can. This helps me explore my subjects more, to find something I feel adds passion and often positive emotion to a story. It lets me be a creative force in the process.”
Further differentiating himself from the pack is the deep homework Morris conducts before an assignment.
“Research lets you gain insight on a culture, say, what day of the week they might be attending religious services —anything to clue you in on what to expect when you get to your assignment destination,” says Morris. “It’s a fine line between preconceived notions and what truly awaits. As I’m telling the story with my photography, I try not to forget that.”
Working on newspapers has given Morris an appreciation for what his editors are looking for. “I know what it’s like to sit and wait for a photo, past deadline,” he says. “I also know what it’s like to wonder where my story’s photo caption information is, or where the detailed caption content is. My clients know my shots will be on time and well-captioned.”
The Brighter Side
Seeing the same news broadcasts and journals as the rest of us, Morris often wishes mainstream journalism would focus less on human cruelty, sadness, and tragedy. To this end, he makes a conscious effort to capture goodness and kindness in the people and cultures he photographs, to remind us it’s not all pain and suffering.
“I see so much stress on the negative aspects of things in the media, showing the brighter side gives me an angle to my work that helps keep me and my clients content,” he says.
“This doesn’t negate assignments that only have a raw, sad angle. After all, that’s the job—I don’t downplay the bad stuff. But if I can, I’ll also look for the positive. I did a story about a 16-year-old girl who was born with AIDS, for example. The photos I brought back illustrated her as a happy teenager with friends, a spokesperson for AIDS awareness, and other great things in her life. Those are the stories I love to do,” Morris says.
“Families in the Philippines (right, center), scrounging through dumps looking for recyclables to sell is a terrible thing,” continues Morris. “But I brought back shots of their happiness, the side of their life that doesn’t focus on financial burdens. It’s important to see their lives in a wider context, as opposed to what we too often see depicted, which is people being cruel to each other. There’s usually another side, another perspective that’s not so sad.”
Online Travel Preparations
Doing location research is particularly important to Morris before traveling internationally. To stay on top of foreign assignments, “Some of the best tools I’ve found are Sportsshooter.com and Lightstalkers.org for getting a good heads up on particular locations, venues, and countries,” he says.
Both sites offer a large pool of international photographers who share ideas, stories, gear recommendations, and other tips.
“These days, you’re able to pre-arrange drivers, guides, and interpreters, even get a warning about potential pitfalls or dangers, all before you’ve left home. The Internet has made a huge change in the business, thanks to online bulletin boards and networking.”
Morris reminds us there’s still no “handbook” for the traveling photojournalist. Even though he was based in Hong Kong for years, and has traveled frequently ever since, he knows there’s no formula that lets him be certain of what awaits him at his next shoot. All this said, Morris has never encountered major issues. “I have to admit, I’ve never had any huge problems traveling for work,” he says. “In the post 9-11 world, it’s become more difficult getting back into the U.S. than leaving it, so I simply build time into my schedule,” he says.
Morris carries all of his camera gear onboard with him, as he explains. “Airlines can lose my shoes and my clothes, but without that gear, I’m dead.” Aside from his photo gear, secured in a photo knapsack, he always makes sure to bring with him a first aid kit—including hypodermic needles in case he finds himself somewhere where there would be a concern for sanitary conditions in a hospital—two pairs of shoes, flip-flops, a few changes of clothes, and extra socks.