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Winning With Women Wednesday: An Interview with Allison Mayer, Humanitarian Photojournalist

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Allison Mayer

Allison Mayer, Humanitarian Photojournalist

Good morning and welcome to another Winning With Women Wednesday interview. This week we had the pleasure of getting to know an award winning photographer, journalist, and humanitarian named,  Allison Mayer. Allison’s road to success began by establishing one of Indianapolis top preforming wedding and portrait studios, voted Best Photographer in Indianapolis. She loved her job, but wanted more authenticity in life. A trip to Haiti connected the dots and Allison’s passion for people, change, and photography collided. She freelances as a humanitarian photojournalist, not only domestically but also internationally. She works with organizations to refine their visual media into compassionate and respectful stories that honor and celebrate humanity, maintaining dignity even in the least dignified of circumstances.


Get To Know Allison

1. Allison, please share with us what drew you to become a photojournalist?

The reason I became a photojournalist is due to the fact that I was appalled by the increasingly graphic, horrific, and salacious content that was making it onto our televisions, our papers, and the viral content on social media. We live in a world where people should be recognized as people and not for the audiences their stories will attract.

I remember first traveling to Haiti in 2012. I brought back images and stories of a hopeful and joyous people. Media coverage of Haiti subsided back to nothing following the earthquake, and images of a devastated, starving Haiti were all people were left with. When I showed my images and talked about my experience people cried. Many individuals were surprised that Haitians had anything to smile about. They had no idea how much their lives were just like ours. I knew I could bring a better, dignified, more respectful voice to the conversation.

This is why I work as a freelance photojournalist, largely for private companies and Non Governmental Organizations. I have the ability to say NO. 

2. What kind of gear do you use?

I am a Nikon shooter.

I shoot all my stills with the Nikon D700 or the Nikon D810, and most of my videos with the Nikon D3300 or the Nikon D810. I use my iPhone6+ to shoot a lot of video as well.

My Lenses vary depending on where I’m shooting, what I’m shooting, and what kind of creative mood I’m in. My ‘can’t live without it’ lens is the Nikon 70-200mm f2.8. There was a time when I shot with this lens almost exclusively. However at nearly 3.5lbs, it makes for a long day, especially if you are hiking 8 stories of mountain. My last trip I left it at home and took only my 50mm f1.2, and my 24-70mm f2.8. That worked out okay. I am a big fan of equipment rentals and rent lenses, bodies, lighting, and accessories on a regular basis. It allows me to always have exactly what I need for a particular assignment with out having to spend all of my money on gear.

I use Yongnuo 560 speedlights when necessary. I love off camera lighting, but when I’m in a place like Haiti it can not only be a hassle, but a security risk if I’m in a small group. 90% of the time I’m shooting with available light.

I use ThinkTank Photo bags to pack and travel with my gear.

3. When you go in one of your travels, what all you take with you? Why?

Packing for a humanitarian trip can be difficult. You never want to take more than you can carry, and because of my gear packing enough clothes is probably the most difficult part.

I always take at least two camera bodies. When I was in Haiti this past summer my D700 stopped working. The humidity broke it. This is why I always travel with at least one back up camera body, otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to finish my assignment. I also take at least two lenses.

I take my 13inch MacBook Pro and two external 1TB hard drives. Again lots of back ups. This past trip to Haiti also broke the track pad on my MacBook. Thankfully It was at the end of the trip and someone had an extra mouse for me to use. Every trip is a learning experience. Now I know I need to invest in a way besides my computer to back up my files from the memory cards.

You should stock up on memory cards and batteries. If you think you have enough, double the amount just to be sure.

My other must have travel items are Sour Patch Kids and protein powder. This seems silly I know, but I recommend when traveling to other countries, especially impoverished areas, that you take a snack that you love. In Haiti I ate a lot of onion-flavored spaghetti for breakfast, and rice for dinner. Protein can be hard to come by in significant quantities. Trekking by foot everywhere is intense physical activity. Your body will thank you for the protein, and your moral will thank you for the candy.

4. In the field, what are your settings?

My settings obviously depend on the environment I’m in. I always shoot in RAW, I auto-focus, and I use auto white Balance 90% of the time. I prefer to shoot at as low of an aperture as possible. Since I shoot mainly images of people, I prefer a shallow depth of field.

5. What kind of tools do you use for post processing? Explain your work flow.

I do the majority of my post processing in Adobe Lightroom. Even though I don’t work for a media outlet, I stick to acceptable standards for photojournalists when editing photos. This means I’m not manipulating my images to remove or add things, so I rarely need to use Photoshop.

I edit using an iMac and a Wacom Tablet. The tablet had a steep learning curve that I know dissuades a lot of people from ever making it part of their editing, but its worth it. The precision you have shaves significant time off your editing. The most important part of my workflow is to back up my images. I’d say a typical workflow is as follows

1. Shoot
2. Make a working copy of all data to Hard Drive 1
3. Make a back up copy of all data to Hard Drive 2
4. Make a Lightroom Catalog
5. Import images and video from Working Copy
6. Tag and keyword images and video
7. Digitize and summarize all notes/interview data
8. Edit Images
9. Edit Video
10. Write Story
11. Compile final deliverable for client.
12. Delete Memory Cards. (If I’m on a long assignment I may not have this luxury, in which case I will format the memory cards after I make two backup copies).
13. Combine Lightroom Catalog into Master Catalog.
14. Move all data (images, video, edits, catalogs, etc…) to back up drive.
15. Delete copy of all data on Hard Drive 2.

6. How do you educate yourself to take better pictures?

The best education is practice. I learn a lot from Creative Live, and by surrounding myself with a network of talented and supportive photographers. Almost everything I know about photography I learned from doing it. YouTube is a great resource when you need to know how to do something, as is Google, but knowing it and being able to do it are two different things. The latter comes from practice.

7. Among your works, which one is your favorite? Why?
Haiti 1

This is Kenciana from a rural part of Haiti, just outside Port-Au-Prince. In this photo she weighs just under 3lbs, severely malnourished. There was a very good chance she wouldn’t make it, but thanks to the malnutrition clinic at Nehemiah Vision Ministries she’s growing stronger every day. For every Kenciana, there are plenty of stories where the outcome wasn’t a happy ending. This girl truly is a miracle, and reminds me every day of the good that can be done through the organizations I work with.

Haiti 3

This set of images of Christine sums up the Haitian spirit. Joyful, thankful, and blessed. Their spirit is un-crushable.

Haiti 2

How can you not love this image? Its pure joy. These kids had never seen a parachute before, something that’s a right of passage in Gym class here in the United States. When I look at this image I can hear their laughter and their screams, the sounds of dozens of children without a care in the world. No shoes, no shirt, (maybe even no dinner that day) no problem. They’re just kids, like we all were.

Haiti 4

Sometimes an image that isn’t even of a person tells a more powerful story about a situation than a portrait ever could. I think that’s important to remember, that we don’t always need to exploit the people in a photo to get our point across.

Haiti 5

This image from my 2012 trip to Haiti started it all. I was showing some images to a group of friends, when one of them stopped on this image, held my ipad to her chest, and started crying. “I wish I could just give her a hug” my friend said. I realized I had the ability to impact people with my photography, to connect them to people they would never have known. I’ll never forget how it made me feel to have that kind of an impact on someone. More than anything I felt the weight of the responsibility that comes with my job. These are people, and I must NEVER forget that. It’s a privilege to share their stories, and I don’t take it lightly.

8. Whose work has influenced you most?

James Nachtwey. His TED Talk is as inspiring as his images. While I love his work, it is something he said that had the most influence on me.
“And I understood that documentary photography has the ability to interpret events from their point of view. It gives a voice to those who otherwise would not have a voice. I’m a witness, and I want my testimony to be honest and uncensored. I also want it to be powerful and eloquent, and to do as much justice as possible to the experience of the people I’m photographing.”

9. What is the one thing you wish you knew when you started taking photos?

That its about the story. I’m a great photographer now, but I wasn’t always. If you are waiting for your work to be “good enough” you’ll never get there. Your work doesn’t have to be perfect if you have something to say.

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