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BEST OF 2011, Arne Hoel
McLean, VA
Project: Work in Africa for an international organization resulting in Victoria’s Story, a 4:30-minute unscripted video assembled from stills and locally recorded audio in Juba, Southern Sudan.

© Arne Hoel

© Arne Hoel
Juba, South Sudan (2010)


As the World Bank’s principal documentary photographer for Africa, Arne Hoel traveled on assignment to Juba, the capital of South Sudan, to document a mother of eight and her family for a program treating malaria, a major killer of women and children. In the 4-minute 30-second, unscripted Victoria’s Story, Hoel’s poignant storytelling mixes still images with the subject’s own words to powerful effect. This small, quiet yet heroic piece is about a project that boosted the number of local families with insecticide-treated bed nets to 60 percent, a fivefold increase since 2005.

© Arne Hoel
© Arne Hoel
Juba, South Sudan (2010)


© Arne Hoel
© Arne Hoel
Juba, South Sudan (2010)


© Arne Hoel
© Arne Hoel
Kampala, Uganda (2005)


© Arne Hoel
© Arne Hoel
Juba, South Sudan (2010)


© Arne Hoel
© Arne Hoel
Juba, South Sudan (2010)


© Arne Hoel
© Arne Hoel
Juba, South Sudan (2010)


© Arne Hoel
© Arne Hoel
Juba, South Sudan (2010)


© Arne Hoel
© Arne Hoel
Juba, South Sudan (2010)


© Arne Hoel
© Arne Hoel
Kano, Nigeria (2008)


© Arne Hoel
© Arne Hoel
Okavango Delta, Botswana (2007)


© Arne Hoel
© Arne Hoel
Gaborone, Botswana (2007)


© Arne Hoel
© Arne Hoel
Saint Louis, Mauritius (2007)


© Arne Hoel
© Arne Hoel
Kigali, Rwanda (2009)


© Arne Hoel
© Arne Hoel
Oromo, Ethiopia (2006)


© Arne Hoel
© Arne Hoel
Aswan, Egypt (2007)


© Arne Hoel
© Arne Hoel
Gaborone, Botswana (2007)


© Arne Hoel
© Arne Hoel
Saniquellie, Liberia (2009)


© Arne Hoel
© Arne Hoel
Monrovia, Liberia (2009)


© Arne Hoel
© Arne Hoel
Aguégué, Benin (2009)


© Arne Hoel
© Arne Hoel
Okavango Delta, Botswana (2007)


© Arne Hoel
© Arne Hoel
Okavango Delta, Botswana (2007)


© Arne Hoel
© Arne Hoel
Cotonou, Benin (2008)


© Arne Hoel
© Arne Hoel
Great Rift Valley, Kenya (2005)


ASMP: How long have you been in business?

AH: I worked as a documentary photographer and multimedia producer in the World Bank from 2004 to 2008, and have worked freelance since.

ASMP: How long have you been an ASMP member?

AH: I have been a member since 2005.

ASMP: What are your photographic specialties?

AH: I usually describe myself as a multimedia storyteller. I help international organizations, aid agencies, NGOs and foundations tell their unique stories. I work with clients to help them communicate their mission and show the positive impact of their work. My multimedia productions integrate photography, video, audio and motion graphics in one compelling narrative. In my photography, which often involves intimate environmental portraits, I try to capture how people’s lives have been improved through investments in health, education, infrastructure and the private sector. I try to make my work convey optimism and hope, and be a testimony to the resilience of the human spirit, even in the face of abject poverty.

ASMP: What do you consider your most valuable tool or piece of equipment?

AH: Aside from my main cameras — a Nikon D3 and a Nikon D7000 (which can capture full HD video) and lenses (I use a lot of fast prime lenses) — I consider my digital field recorder (a Marantz PMD661) my most important piece of equipment for multimedia.

ASMP: What is unique about your style/approach or what sets you and your work apart from other photographers?

AH: Clients tell me that I bring to the projects a unique combination of a strong artistic vision and a deep understanding of international development issues. I have focused on these issues for the better part of my career, and I have a good sense of what the clients want. We speak the same “language” and we can dialogue about messaging as well as creative approaches. I also take on responsibility for all aspects of the communication project — from conceptualization, developing a narrative, planning the logistics, creating compelling photographic images, audio capture and editing, photo and video editing, assembling the multimedia production, as well as exhibition design, printing and mounting and book design.

ASMP: Please describe the processes and techniques central to the making of this work.

AH: Before the assignment, I read as much as I could about the donor-supported anti-malaria work in South Sudan. I subsequently worked with a local NGO, Norwegian People’s Aid, to get access to various health facilities and to be introduced to Victoria Michael (38) and her family. Before I started shooting, I spent some time hanging out with Victoria and her family, chatting informally so we could get to know each other a little. I then did an audio interview with Victoria and recorded some natural sound before shooting a series of photographs at the clinic and her in her home. Doing the interview first helped me develop a mental “shot list” so I knew what I needed to fill the audio narrative in terms of visuals.

ASMP: When shooting Victoria’s Story, how much time did you spend with your subject and how much footage did you shoot to result in the final 4:30 minute piece? How does this time frame and ratio compare with other multimedia projects you’ve done?

AH: I spent about three hours with Victoria and her family. During this time I did a 35-minute audio interview (including interpretation), and I shot about 300 photos. This was a pretty typical multimedia production in terms of time spent and photos shot. Needless to say, a lot of time goes into the post-production work, especially the sound editing.

ASMP: What equipment and software did you use on the production side of Victoria’s Story? Do you generally work with the same materials or does this vary on a project-to-project basis? If materials vary, please elaborate.

AH: I shot the entire story with one camera body (Nikon D3) and one lens (AF-S Nikkor 24-70 mm/f2.8). I processed and edited the RAW files in Lightroom 3 and assembled the multimedia piece in Final Cut Pro.

ASMP: How long have you been producing multimedia work and how did you first learn these skills?

AH: I started out doing relatively simple slideshows with music about four years ago, using FotoMagico and Slideshow Pro software. In 2009, I took a workshop with Brian Storm of Mediastorm and realized that if I wanted to make more complex, emotionally charged, and more “layered” productions, I would have to learn Final Cut Pro. I taught myself FCP using books and online video tutorials, with some good support from my son Per, who is an experienced video editor and aspiring filmmaker.

ASMP: You mention that Victoria’s Story was an unscripted production. Do you also produce multimedia projects working from a script and, if so, do you have a preference for doing unscripted or scripted projects? Why?

AH: With exception of some simple slideshows that use carefully crafted text/captions, I rarely do scripted stories. I work with the clients to find out what they need to communicate on an issue, then collaborate with them to develop key messages we want to get across and a storyline. I think unscripted stories come across as more authentic, and often convey more “raw” emotions that touch the audience. I therefore try to find subjects who can give a story a face and a voice, and who can personify the story we are trying to tell.

ASMP: The music in Victoria’s Story is very effective, but it’s not credited on the YouTube video. What is it, was it made for the project, and how was it licensed?

AH: The music is from a royalty-free music library and is not credited. I spend a lot of time searching for appropriate music for my pieces, because I know that the right music can elevate a story and give it emotional punch.

ASMP: Social issue photographers usually have documentary or journalistic roots. Was this your path? How did you first get involved with the World Bank?

AH: I worked as a freelance photographer while I went to college and graduate school. I have a BA and MA in political science, and I later had a career in international diplomacy, which brought me to Washington, D.C. Subsequently, I went to work for the World Bank where I managed communications and donor relations for a development program in East Africa. This background has actually helped me to better understand the complex development issues I am documenting in the field, and allowed me to “deconstruct” them as stories that may interest a broader audience.

ASMP: Have you always been based in Washington, DC? Are you a Washington insider or policy wonk, or do you have a marketing or entrepreneurial background?

AH: I have been based in Washington since 1998. Before that I lived in Norway, Austria and Saudi Arabia. No, I don’t consider myself a Washington insider or a policy wonk, but I do appreciate the vibrant international community in D.C. and the opportunities that come with the global orientation of so many organizations and companies based here. I do not have a marketing or entrepreneurial background, so I have found the resources available through ASMP extremely useful.

ASMP: On your Web site, you promote services for small-run book design and production to NGO-type clients. What’s your business strategy in this regard and how much of your time is currently spent on this work?

AH: It’s a relatively small part of my business, but I like to offer this service as an “add-on” to a package normally consisting of photo shoots and multimedia productions.

ASMP: Please tell us about your relationship with the World Bank as a client. Do you have direct interaction with bankers and economists, or with professional specialists familiar with photographers’ fees, rights, and ethical issues? Are there dedicated graphic designers or multi-media producers on staff?

AH: The World Bank is a very professional client, well aware of photographers’ fees, copyright, ethical issues and so on. They also have internal rules and ethical guidelines that apply to this kind of work. I work directly with operational staff, who supervise and manage projects in the field, as well as communications/external relations staff.

ASMP: What kind of creative input do your clients generally have in determining how the story is told or dictating the look of a piece?

AH: It depends on the client. Some are able to provide fairly specific input on how they want a story told. In other cases, I present a concept and later a rough cut of the multimedia story. Based on their feedback, I reshape and tweak the story.

ASMP: What kind of fee structure do you employ in your work with the World Bank, other non-profits and NGOs?

AH: I usually work on the basis of a daily rate (based on internationally competitive rates), which varies depending on who the clients are. For special projects, I price the deliverables as a package that includes my creative fee as well as my time and other inputs.

ASMP: How much, if any, contact do you have with your clients when you are in the field shooting? Are you accompanied by additional client representatives, and if so are they locally based? What about fixers and/or translators? Are these resources provided by the client or do you need to seek them out yourself?

AH: I am in regular contact with my clients while I am in the field. I am often accompanied by field-based staff, or by representatives from an NGO that is implementing a project on behalf of donors.

ASMP: The work that you do must require significant preparation on all fronts, from background research to technical aspects to logistics. What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced on a project?

AH: Prior to undertaking a photo shoot, I conduct extensive research and liaise closely with HQ and field-based staff to ensure that the outcomes of the shoot are relevant to the strategic communication objectives of the client. The biggest challenges in Africa are usually related to logistics; for example, traveling by roads during the rainy season. In 2009, I was on assignment in Liberia and had to travel to a remote mining community up north, but due to an impassable dirt road (it had literally been turned into a river of mud after the heavy rains), we had to return to the capital, Monrovia. Last year, I visited South Sudan during the rainy season and our movements were very restricted due to lack of all-weather paved roads. The only way to travel outside the provisional capital Juba was by helicopter.

ASMP: In regard to being prepared, what are your most essential recommendations to offer someone embarking for the first time on an undertaking along the lines of your projects?

AH: Research and learn as much as you can about the issues, so that you understand the issues and can find the story. Then find your own way of interpreting and telling the story. Also find out as much as you can about local conditions, so that you can prepare for all the practical and logistical challenges you will face.

ASMP: Do you have any suggestions for other photographers who may be faced with electric power issues in remote places?

AH: I make sure I carry enough rechargeable camera batteries to last me for several days when I am in remote locations and “off the grid.” In a pinch, I can always find a shop with a generator where I can let my camera batteries charge for a while, or even use the 12V outlet for a cigarette lighter in a car. I also carry plenty of AA alkaline batteries for my field-recorder and flash units.

ASMP: The places you’ve worked include Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, Central America and the Caribbean. What kind of language skills do you have? Besides the spoken word, what other types of communication do you find are most essential to making progress in your work and building trust?

AH: Beside my native Norwegian, I studied English, German, French and Russian in school. I picked up some conversational Arabic while living in Saudi Arabia. French is definitely the most useful language when I travel in West Africa and in Haiti. I always wish I had studied Swahili, which is spoken across much of East Africa. When it comes to other major African languages, such as Amharic (Ethiopia), Wolof (Senegal), Hausa (Nigeria), as well as local languages, I rely on local interpreters. But the spoken word is only part of interpersonal communication. A smile and a friendly gesture go a long way in building a relationship and building trust. It is absolutely essential to explain to people why you are there and what you are doing.

ASMP: What is your favorite among all the places you’ve worked? Are there any places you’ve visited that you find to be undiscovered gems? What places do you find to be most threatened or lacking in resources?

AH: This is a difficult question to answer. Take Africa, for example: It is an incredibly diverse continent, culturally and economically, but also in terms of the natural environment. Each country has chosen its own path towards development, and some countries, like Botswana, have had a strong economic growth in the last decade. Botswana, in fact, is one of the world’s great development success stories. It has one of the fastest growing economies in the world, with an average annual growth rate of about 9 percent. It has a well-developed infrastructure, and has created a world-class tourism sector from its vast game reserves. A few years ago I did a shoot that included a visit to the Okavango Delta, known for its incredibly diverse wildlife, and it was an unforgettable experience. Africa’s challenges are many, and climate change is yet another development challenge that its poorest countries will face. Simulations have shown that the increasingly volatile climate will cause more severe droughts and floods. Dry areas will become drier and wet areas wetter. It could have a potentially devastating impact on Africa’s largely rain-fed agriculture sector, and adding additional stress on livelihoods and economic activities.

ASMP: Are there any air travel or international customs horror stories that you don’t mind telling now that they’re over? Do you have advice for other photographers to assist in troubleshooting international travel?

AH: Travel within Africa is never uncomplicated, and can sometimes be a risky proposition. During an assignment in Sierra Leone I had to travel with a Russian-made helicopter used to ferry passengers from Lungi Airport to the capital Freetown. It was a short, but highly unconventional flight. We were 20 passengers sitting on metal jump seats in the cavernous compartment of a noisy old former military helicopter, with lots of suitcases strapped down among us. We arrived safely, but a few months later that very same helicopter crashed, killing 19 people on board. It made me think twice about getting on old aircraft of dubious airlines, but in Africa, there are often no other options. Road travel can also be a dicey proposition. In fact, road accidents are the third largest cause of death in Africa behind HIV/AIDS and malaria. During an assignment in Senegal, my driver fell asleep behind the wheel and we went off the road at approximately 80 miles/hour. Fortunately, we missed a huge tree by the side of the road, and when the vehicle finally came to a halt we were ok, if a bit shaken.

ASMP: Your Web site says, “Every organization and every company has a story. But not every story is being told.” Is there any one story you haven’t told yet that you are most passionate about getting to tell?

AH: In the age of YouTube and social media marketing, I think multimedia stories can be an incredibly powerful communication tool for organizations and companies that need to connect with younger, Web-savvy audiences. Real stories — if shot and told with passion and authenticity — engage and resonate with people, and this becomes a way for organizations and companies to make people connect with their brand.

One of my own favorite stories is not from Africa, but from Wheaton, Maryland. It is the story of a young man, Oscar Portillo, and his amazing journey from a village in El Salvador to the suburbs of Washington, D.C., where he came to pursue an education. When he came here at the age of 15 he barely spoke a word of English and lived with various relatives. He is now a Gates Millennium Scholar and is on a four-year full scholarship at Middlebury College in Vermont, where he studies Chinese. I produced a multimedia story about Oscar for CollegeTracks, an organization dedicated to helping students from low-income, immigrant or minority families go to college. Here’s a link to the story.