1 TOW: Photo Interviews

TOW Assignment: Photo Interviews

  1. Using a pen, some paper, and a camera interview seven strangers by asking the question: “What are you afraid of?” Write down what they say. Ask follow-up questions. Try to find a story with a beginning, middle, and end.
  2. Take the person’s photo.
  3. Choose the most interesting interview and edit it down to three sentences, arranged in this order: beginning, middle, and end.
  4. Post the photo with the three sentences at our TOW Facebook Group .
  5. Discuss other people’s pieces in the group, and give serious consideration to people’s thoughts about your work.

Examples: Work by TOW learners:

Also: “suburbia” (by Bill Owens), “Humans of New York”.


Please post your questions at our Facebook Group. These resources will help:


Learn to interview strangers on an assigned topic.

Mentor Notes

The hardest part about producing a story is getting started, especially if you’ve never done it before. Or, actually, that’s not true. It’s hard from the beginning to the end, a lot harder than you can imagine. The thing is: it’s hard for everybody and in many ways the process never gets easier. Every time I produce a story I feel like I’ve never done it before. I wish this were not the case, but it is. So I’ve gotten used to being a beginner. I think anyone who does this kind of work knows what I’m talking about. You’ve got to be brave and strong and desperately want to say something, create something. You will make mistakes and embarrass yourself on a continual basis, but this is part of the process and it helps a lot to see mistakes as opportunities to improve.

Fortunately, you are not alone. You have come to the right place. Transom is nothing if not a community of like-minded individuals. You are now among friends and experts, the best minds in the field, and we all want to help you. We’ve all been through this before and live with it everyday like an addiction. You want to create stories? Oh, yes, we understand all too well. Here’s the way it works: you’ve got to start on your own and figure things out as you go along, but the TOW help you every step of the way. If you’re ready to do this then let’s go.

Recording Reality

Reality can be recorded and documented in many ways, an infinite number of ways, but we’re going to focus on interviewing people.

When you’re making a documentary or non-fiction story the first thing you need to do is record some interviews and real scenes that actually happen in the real world. You can do this by writing notes or taking photos or recording audio and/or video. In this workshop we’re going to do all of these, but we’ll start with writing notes and taking photos, what’s sometimes called photojournalism.

The first thing I’d like you to do is pick up a pen and a camera. These are the first tools we will be using. Hold them in your hands and gaze upon them with wonder and fascination. They should feel like light sabers, throbbing through your fingers. In your hands they have enormous power. With these tools you can create something that never existed before, perhaps something that will blow people away. We’re going to use these tools to record and document reality.

Reality can be recorded and documented in many ways, an infinite number of ways, but we’re going to focus on interviewing people.

We want you to interview seven people, preferably strangers. Ask them this question, “What are you afraid of?” Ask follow-up questions, drawing the person out, trying to get a whole story with a beginning, middle and end. Write down what they say. You’ll see that it’s impossible to write as fast as people talk and you’ll have to edit on the spot, writing down the best or most interesting parts. The whole interviewing thing is really pretty difficult and somewhat wild and unpredictable, just do the best you can. (See “Talking to Strangers”.)

It’s Not Easy

It’s not easy to do this. It’s scary to walk up to somebody and ask them to spill their guts for you. You can get better at it by practicing, but it never gets easy. I’ve been doing it for more than 30 years and I still get queasy just thinking about it. But I force myself into it because it’s what I have to do to start a project, it’s how the work begins.

Try to act like you know what you’re doing. Be brave; believe in what you’re doing. This is photojournalism, a proud tradition.

Then take the interviewee’s photograph. It’s also not easy to take a photo, even a bad one. A lot of people are uncomfortable being photographed and you have to talk them into it. Do the best you can. If the person doesn’t want to be photographed, that’s OK, it’s up to them in the end. There are other fish in the sea. Try to act like you know what you’re doing. If you’re not confident then the interviewee will be nervous. Be brave; believe in what you’re doing. This is photojournalism, a proud tradition. You need to take their photograph in order for your story, their story, to work.

So you’ll need to learn about your camera and how to take a good photo. Above are links to tutorials.


After you’ve interviewed seven people, the editing process begins. For this assignment we want you to choose the best interviewee, the best story, and edit it down to three sentences comprising a beginning, middle and end. Then post a photograph of the interviewee above his or her quote.
What we want are powerful juxtapositions between the photos and the texts, so the two combine into a third thing that has the power to move people’s minds, to change their emotions, or make them think and feel something new, something that seems like now you know a little more about yourself and the world around you. Read Julián Cardona’s “The Camera Is Only A Tool” and see the examples below.

— Scott Carrier, Mentor, TOW Basics: Multimedia Storytelling