Sara Fajardo: Photos to Connect Us

Sara Fajardo is a staff photographer at the Orlando Sentinel. Her photojournalism journey has taken her to many places, from local places in the States to covering the rise and fall of president Alberto Fujimori in Peru. You can see some of her photos at her website:
She’s also the author of a children’s nonfiction book, Enrique’s Day: From Dawn to Dusk in a Peruvian City.
Here’s Sara…

How do you view your role as staff photographer at the Orlando Sentinel? What are your challenges to carrying out this role?
As a newspaper photographer I feel blessed to be able to share the stories of others, to be allowed into their homes and be witness to their most private moments. Each story is important and I give each assignment, whether it is pageant queens or cancer survivors, the same attention, because these are individual stories that weave together the greater story of our community. On this job I’ve learned that the comfortable and the afflicted are separated only by circumstance. And so, with each image I make I strive to capture that which unites – the hopes, the dreams, the love, the sorrow, the laughter; the moments that define our lives.
Photographs are our reader’s first entry into a story and so I feel a real responsibility to try and make an image that gets to the heart of the person — a photograph that will hopefully push people to recognize themselves in others. This can of course be difficult because people react differently in front of the camera. I, myself, freeze up when photographed so I can understand when others do as well. It’s a real balancing act between actually making images and putting people at ease. Good photography takes patience and time, some stories are painful and a photographer has to establish a great deal of trust with the people being photographed in order to best tell their story. I’m asking people to allow me to be inches away from their faces with this huge lens. So, that is probably the biggest challenge, establishing trust.
During slow news days, how do you fill your time?
Our industry is changing at a very rapid pace. The Internet has completely transformed the way in which we report the news. We no longer have the luxury of being simply still photographers; a newspaper photographer must also produce vast amounts of material for the web.
The internet has helped to give us new and meaningful ways of storytelling, but it is also a whole new set of skills we are constantly having to learn and update. On slower days I do a lot of self training — working with my video camera, playing with audio and video editing, researching future stories, as well as studying the work of my colleagues and other multimedia and still journalists.
What’s an average day like?
I’d say that there is no average day for a newspaper photographer, and that is precisely what makes this job so exciting and rewarding. The only constant is the unexpected. Photojournalists, unlike other journalists in the newsroom, don’t have particular beats. We cover everything, from business, to features, spot news, and sports.
One week I photographed a homeless woman moving into a home after months of living with her three children in a tiny extended stay hotel room, the next day I covered female flag football players and a Tony Bennett concert, and ended my week photographing WWE wrestlers conducting a Jeopardy-like contest at the local library and an archaeological dig in a rural community. Each day brings its own gifts and challenges.
What do you think about the state of journalism today? Do you think it’s affecting your work and the kind of work you do?
Journalism is in a complete state of flux. It’s changed so much in the past few years and newspapers no longer have the resources that they once had. These changes are both frightening and invigorating. Anything is possible as we struggle to reinvent ourselves.
The world is changing and we have to respond to those changes. I love all the possibilities that the World Wide Web affords us — unlimited space, and the opportunity to marry sound and audio.
I am, however, very skeptical of some of the new demands that are being made of us. For the first time journalists are being asked to think of the revenue side of newspapers, and I think that this a very fine line that we should not and cannot cross if we are to maintain our journalistic integrity. In order to best serve the community we often times have to publish stories that might be controversial and unpopular and cause us to lose readers and advertisers. If we are constantly having to think about the bottom line, this can interfere with our news content. While I understand that newspapers are a business and we must remain profitable in order to survive, I don’t think that journalists themselves should be included in the money making part of the equation.
What works as a photographer are you most proud of? What do you consider a job well done?
Anytime someone tells me that a photograph moved him or her, or the person I photographed tells me that they feel that I listened and made them feel comfortable I feel like I’ve done my job well.
My favorite work is usually stories that deal with social services, the indigent and disenfranchised, but I enjoy a good cat show or dog parade just as much as the next person.
I tend to fall in love with the people I photograph, and am moved by something on a daily basis. I cherish hearing people beam with pride over their children, or be by their side as they reminisce and cry over a lost loved one. I love it all — the spelling bees, the spaghetti dinners, the hand-built airplanes, the baptisms . . . It is really an amazing honor to go into someone else’s home and be able to help them tell their story.
Photojournalism is a hard field to get into. What advice do you have for readers who are looking to get into this field and contribute?
My advice is to find a mentor; someone who has been in the profession for some time and is willing to look at your work and give feedback. Another set of more seasoned eyes can see things in your work that you might completely overlook — simple things such as use of composition and lighting, but also the more nuanced like any visual redundancies that might be cropping up in your work.
If you’re a student, take advantage of the numerous internship opportunities that are available to you. Use them as a way to explore this country. Apply to newspapers in both small and large markets. Being in a new place can be transformative for your photography.
I’d also say to just keep photographing. Find a topic that interests you and explore it as much as possible. If a story is interesting to you, chances are it’ll be interesting to others as well. A person doesn’t have to fly halfway around the world to find good stories; they surround us. Exploring a topic in depth really allows a photographer to develop the interpersonal skills necessary to do this work on a daily basis. It is also invaluable for building up your portfolio.
Beyond that I’d say network, network, network. Introduce yourself to the editors of your local paper. Ask if they have any freelance opportunities available. While they might not have a need for freelancers, you’d be surprised how often we get called by outside companies wanting us to refer them to photographers in our area. If they know you they might just be willing to pass your name along.
If there is a particular organization in your community you support that does relief work offer to go with them as their official photographer. Or do the same in your own city.
Show your interest, go to conventions and workshops for journalists, and join such organizations as NPPA –National Press Photographers Association, NAHJ- National Association for Hispanic Journalists, NABJ- National Association for Black Journalists, NLGJA- National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association, NAJA- Native American Journalists Association, and AAJA- Asian American Journalists Association.
Build a website with your portfolio – something I’m just starting to work on myself — or start a bog. Get your name out there, and learn as much as you can about multimedia. In addition to your still images, start playing with audio and video as much as possible. This will not only make you more marketable, but it will also multiply the ways in which your story can reach others.
And lastly, if anyone ever tells you that you can’t do this, don’t believe it. Everyone has a place. We aren’t all meant to win Pulitzer prizes, but we all have something to contribute.
Your work over the years has also been connected to community and social justice work — Peruvian American Medical Society, Latino Reporter, Global Journalist. Can you talk more about these connections and how you view the interconnectedness of your work?
I believe it all has helped to make me a better journalist. My work with PAMS (Peruvian American Medical Society) is probably the most fulfilling work I’ve ever done. It really opened up my eyes to the need people have for simple medical procedures. We are so fortunate in the United States to have access to medical care, clean water, and education. The women and children that I translated for often needed very little to improve their quality of life – clean water, multi-vitamins, antibiotics. Some of them would walk for hours and sleep outside the hospital in order to be seen by a doctor. The need was tremendous, but so was their hope. It reaffirmed my desire to serve people with my photography. Eventually I would like to work for humanitarian aid organizations full time.
As for Global Journalist, it is an amazing program that discusses pertinent international issues on a weekly basis. It was my job to gather a panel of four journalists from around the world to discuss relevant topics. I had to do massive amounts of research and be familiar with news outlets from East Timor to Yemen, from Argentina to South Africa. It taught me that I was capable of accomplishing the seemingly impossible on deadline and how to be persuasive. I was given this unique opportunity to really get to know and learn about the issues on a global scale. This continues to inform my interests as a journalist and shape the way I approach my work.
But what has most shaped me as a journalist was the work I did for Adelante!, a bilingual monthly newspaper that served the Mid-Missouri Latino community. It was spearheaded by this amazing woman, Tracy Barnett, who taught us all not only how to be better journalists but how to be better people. The staff was incredibly diverse — we had an Arab-American columnist, a Japanese copy editor, a white-American photo editor, a Spanish designer, and journalists from all over Latin America and the U.S. This was community and grassroots journalism at its finest. Tracy pushed us to really delve deep into the community to recognize and find stories at the local bodega as well as the local literary scene. We covered everything from immigration to how the fruits and vegetables of the Americas transformed world cuisine. Adelante! has become my standard for good journalism.
As journalists, we should aim to uplift, inspire, challenge, as well as inform the community. This is what Adelante! accomplished. Unfortunately, Adelante! is no longer being published, but I’d say that those of us who passed through its doors are much more compassionate journalists because of it.
Do you remember the first photo you were proud of? What was it of?
The first photograph I was proud of, if you can believe this, was of the chicken feet my grandmother, Mamá Pali, was about to use in one of her favorite soup recipes. I’d begun taking photography classes at La Universidad Católica del Perú at the prompting of my good friend Jenne, who’d traveled with me from New York to study in Lima. I was an absolutely wretched photographer, my composition, use of light, techniques were beyond dreadful, there were trees growing out of people’s heads, everything was back-lit, out of focus, etc. . . One of my professors called me the “guillotine,� because I inadvertently chopped people off at the legs or cut off the tops of their heads, while another told me I had no future in photography, that I should just give it up. But there was something about the medium that had me completely entranced and I figured that I simply couldn’t get any worse so I might as well keep at it.
So, one day when I saw that Mamá Pali was about to prepare her soup I got very excited. Whenever I saw those chicken feet floating around her bowl, they made me think of baby hands, they had a very human-like quality to them. It seemed like such an odd ingredient, like something out of a horror movie that might attack you while you were in mid-bite, but she thought they were delicious. On that particular day I decided I had to do something with those chicken feet. There was a lovely shaft of light streaming in from the kitchen window on the fourteenth floor condo unit we were living in. I grabbed a piece of black construction paper in order to give it a clean background, and propped the feet along with the yellow bowl they were in on top of it. The light wrapped beautifully around the bowl, leaving everything else in shadow and highlighting every texture and ridge on those feet. They’d been placed in the bowl by someone in such a way that they looked like they were crawling out of it, as if they were about to go for a stroll somewhere, so the photograph itself had this surreal dynamic to it that made you wonder what they were up to.
When I developed that roll of film I was shocked at how well it came out, it looked exactly, if not better than I had envisioned it. My professors were shocked as well and ended up including it in a show of the year’s best work. I think that photograph taught me that I was capable of producing the images that I had locked away in me, that if I paid enough attention to my surroundings I could coax secrets from everyday objects.
As for Mamá Pali, she gave me about two minutes to get that photograph because she ate every single day at noon, not a minute earlier, not a minute later. And if you ask me what the soup tastes like, I have no idea; I’ve been a vegetarian for almost 20 years now.
When did you know that photojournalism was the career path for you?
It was in the small Andean village of Ñuñunhuaycco, Peru. I’d just left my job as a Spanish bilingual first-grade teacher to assist my cousin, NPR reporter, Mandalit del Barco, on a documentary project she was working on. We were traveling the Andes interviewing those who had been internally displaced by Peru’s Maoist insurgency, the Shining Path, during the 80s and 90s. Most of them had returned home, and we were documenting the stories of their return.
I remember that we were in this adobe house, all the women were gathered around preparing a meal for the children of the village. The large aluminum pot was steaming with soup over a wood fire. The women were gathered around us chattering away in Quechua and Spanish. It seemed like such an ordinary scene, bowls being passed back and forth, but then they began to speak. What they told us was absolutely heart wrenching, they’d lived through torture, rape, and mass executions. You just didn’t expect to hear such things in the middle of that beautiful little village, nestled in the mountains with this glorious blue Andean sky as a backdrop. The children had only moments before been playing with us, small dogs running in between our legs as we sang and danced. And here they were telling us about how they’d seen their husbands, fathers, brothers, sons killed, on the very ground where we were standing.
Mandalit had this amazing way about her, simply listening, and affirming their experience. It was while watching her that I realized how important this job was, how necessary journalists are to ensure that such abuses don’t go by unnoticed.
I was painfully shy at the time, so shy I couldn’t even photograph at a kiddie caper parade in my hometown of Salinas, California, and I shook so much from nervousness at the first press conference Mandalit took me to that all of the photos came out blurry. Watching Mandalit work, seeing her seek out the story, get people to open up, transformed my life. By the end of the year she had me dodging rubber bullets, running through tear gas. I often refer to her as my patron saint of journalism. If it weren’t for her I would not be a journalist today.

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