In addition to typing fast and being religious about transcribing notes on the day they were taken, the best reporting tool I use is the camera in my iTelephone. I shoot like crazy. I’m careful to ask permission, and to make it clear that it’s not for publication, but only for me. But I’ll shoot many shots of a person’s office, or their home, or the setting where the interview took place. I’ve even been known to excuse myself to the bathroom, pass through the kitchen, open the fridge, and take a picture. A fridge full of cheap beer and take-out containers tells you one thing. A fridge full of fresh fruits and vegetables and home-cooked leftovers tells you something else. You may not use those details in your piece, but knowing this about your character will inform the questions you ask and what you write.
It’s incredibly useful. It’s hard to write down all the telling visual details that can really make a story sit up and bark. What did that little sign on his desk say? What was that poster above her sofa? What was the Latin motto on that soldier’s shoulder patch? What kind of flowers were planted on the grave? You will want that information when you’re writing, and unless you’re a crazy-fast and crazy-observant note-taker, you probably won’t have it.
Look at this photo essay from the Washington Post of the insides of veterans’ cars. Imagine profiling a veteran and getting to take these pictures. Think of the questions these pictures would prompt, and how much detail they would add to your profile.
I started doing this when I went to Kuwait and Iraq in 2003, right after the Saddam statue fell, writing this story for the New York Times Magazine about private military contractors. I knew my friends at home were going to want to see pictures, so I shot a lot of them every day. I’d be out all day taking notes on paper and shooting my little pictures, and when I got back to the room each night to transcribe, I’d find that I was so mind-blown by everything I saw all day, and so frightened all the time, that my notes were sparse and my memory poor. Then I remembered my pictures, and everything came flooding back — the weird, bloodthirsty inscriptions painted on the tank, the British soldiers’ bizarre rations, the smashed Saddam icons, the towering oilfield machinery, and on and on. Suddenly, my notes made sense, and I was able to recreate in thorough and vivid fashion, everything I’d experienced that day. My article was better for it, and I’ve relied on a little digital camera until I got my first smartphone. Either will work just fine.