Updated: Oct 30, 2018
Author Jenn Mishra
My interview this week is with photojournalist Cristina Fletes. She is a staff photographer at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and was part of the team that won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the protests in Ferguson. I sat own with Cristina to talk about what she learned from covering Ferguson and uncovered lessons we all can learn from her experiences.
Cristina came to St. Louis just two months before Ferguson made front-page news.
"Being so new to St. Louis, I didn’t know anything about Ferguson when I was first sent there. What first struck me was that this neighborhood was so much like the one I grew up in in Memphis. Working class. Modest houses. Tidy lawns. Strip malls full of locally owned stores – hair salons, mini marts, you know the type of thing. I tried to picture this happening in my own neighborhood."
This helped her to see beyond the frenzy of the protests and the heavy police presence and really start to find out about the people who lived in Ferguson and other neighborhoods in St. Louis. These neighborhoods, she discovered, were mostly filled with working people going about their business.
"People were at the bus stop, going to grocery store. People were just trying to live their lives."
The experience in Ferguson changed Cristina’s outlook. It taught her that things aren’t always what they seem.
"Many people try telling me what Ferguson was; telling me what kind of people the protesters were or the police were. There’s lots of nuance. Decades of issues and history and they’re trying to put it in black and white terms. You can’t vilify people just because they live in a neighborhood. These are some of the best people you’ll ever meet."
Through her photographs and videos, Cristina seeks to tell the stories of individual people caught up in current news. Her video work especially helps tell the story.
"There’s nothing like hearing the person speak; hearing the pride in their voice or hearing their voice break with emotion. It hits you in a different way. There’s something about hearing the human voice."
Cristina has a number of videos on her website and she called my attention to two of them. One was a story about a woman who was bullied because of her teeth and the other was about the businesses on Martin Luther King Boulevard in St. Louis.
"MLK Boulevard is so maligned, but if you talk to the people with businesses, they think it’s a wonderful place. When you ask about economic decline, they have no idea what you’re talking about. They say things like, ‘My business is booming. Do you see the line of customers out the door?’ It’s all about perception."
Cristina’s love of meeting people and getting to know their stories is what keeps her going in photojournalism. She tries to create empathy by telling one person’s story. She wants the readers to know that the issues are more complicated than they first thought.
"I’m probably overly empathetic. I get my feelings hurt when people are upset with me. I’m here because I think it’s important. I want to respect their privacy, but also want to tell the story. About half the time they get it."
Cristina is thankful for the people who let her into their lives sometimes on a very bad day. She talked about covering funerals and photographing people when they were in raw emotional states.
Cristina got started with photography in college.
"I was an English major. We were reading this book and I was having a tough time with it. I flipped through the book and landed on a photograph. I realized that was my way of communicating - this is how I was able to process information. From that day forward, that was it. I wanted to be a photographer."
The influential photograph that changed Cristina’s life was by American photographer Walker Evans published in the book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a book about poor white tenant farmers in the deep south.
"It was a calling. I went through all the reasons why I couldn’t do this. I was shy, I didn’t have a good camera, I’m not a technical person, I didn’t know anything about developing film. I went through all the reasons I couldn’t be a photojournalist – I didn’t even know it was called photojournalism at the time – I just knew I wanted to do this. That’s the thing with callings, the only way to satiate this feeling was to start doing it."
She put together a photographic portfolio using a rudimentary point-and-shoot camera. That, along with her painting and drawing skills, got her entry into the Art School.
I asked Cristina what she thinks is a successful photograph.
"Emotion. I always feel so much for the people. I want you to feel the emotion too. If I can get emotion in a nicely composed frame with good light – that’s the trifecta! It’s hard to get all 3. I can sometimes get emotion and good light, but then there’s a pole sticking out of someone’s head – that’s a miss. But you look at what went right, what went wrong, and keep trying for the next one."
Cristina had some tips for those of us who like to take photographs of local events or enjoy street photography.
"Fear is a real thing. It will try to steal your photography away from you. Managing fear cannot be underestimated. Acknowledge your fear and then let it go through the process of identification. What am I afraid of? Will people think I’m weird? Insensitive? Will they yell at me?
Going through the list, you’ll find that most things aren’t valid. If someone yells at you, what does that really do? Work through the fear. If you don’t, the fear will win and you’ll never walk out the door."
She talked about being a shy person who has to talk to the people she photographs – if nothing else, she needed their name for the caption.
"It’s all in the ‘ask’".
Cristina talked about being confident in her approach. If she was timid, people wouldn’t talk to her, but starting with a compliment – what she found interesting about the photograph - and confidence, most people were willing to talk to her - not just give her a name for the caption, but really talk to her.
"I learn so much by talking to people. I often find that things aren’t what they seem to be.
I’m always surprised when people talk to me especially when I don’t expect them to. I was at a vigil for parents whose children were victims of gun violence . I really didn’t want to approach these people and ask for their names, but I found they were thrilled to talk about their children. I assumed people didn’t walk to talk to me, but sometimes they’re just waiting for you to ask. Sometimes they need to unload. These conversations have changed me so much."
She encourages those of us who aren’t professional photojournalists to talk to the people we are photographing to get deeper into the moment and ultimately get better photos.
"Give yourself a script – an approach – so you feel confident and prepared."
If you’re feeling timid, Cristina suggests using whatever affiliation you have – St. Louis Camera Club, a photo class, a blog, a personal project - to instill trust in your photo subjects. This will lend credibility to your purpose. It's often helpful to give a reason for being out somewhere, but you don't have to be attached to a newspaper to have a reason. Having your approach worked out in advance will add confidence.
Understanding more fully the story of the people you are photographing adds a depth and will affect who and what you photograph.
Cristina has learned a lot about the people she photographs and the she strives to get deeper into the story behind the photograph, learning about real people sometimes caught up in extraordinary situations. She encourages all of us to use our photography to get the real story.
** This post may contain affiliate links and I will be compensated if you make a purchase after clicking on my links.
Article Written by Jennifer Mishra
Jennifer Mishra is an American travel photographer born in Colorado and based in the St. Louis metro area. She has a background in classical music and academia. She is the founder of PhotoYoga. Her photos are published at Wits End Photography or follow her on Facebook or Instagram.
Subscribe to PhotoYoga
to receive weekly updates Free e-book with subscription 32 Photo Etudes: Exercises in Composition, Focus, Light, and Motion
Nominate a Photographer
Do you know a photographer who would inspire readers of PhotoYoga? Are you a photographer that has a story or project to share? Let us know on our Contact page >>>