The Source Files No.2: Fingerprinting


March 2013 BOGOTÁ – When I reached the front desk, I registered my identification card and a small camera took a photograph of my face. I doubt it was a good photograph. But then again, I wasn’t there to look beautiful. Then they took my fingerprints. That’s what gave me access to unlock the turnstile. Sometimes I feel that we give the squiggly lines that make up our fingerprints too much power. But fingerprints are part of getting to know the World Bank. I was there to develop sources and find stories. The turnstile clicked behind me.

The World Bank offices are on the 16th floor of a set of office buildings in the center of Bogotá’s Chapinero district. But before I could enter, there was more routine. A security guard met me outside of thick glass doors with large locks. He took my name and scribbled the purpose of my visit on a pad of paper. And then he delivered the information to another secretary. Finally, after a brief wait, I was allowed to enter a chamber where automatic doors on either side shut off all sound. That dizzying hum of almost silence was my only partner.

I was just about to pick up a magazine to kill the time when a young woman entered.

I went to meet the World Bank for two reasons. I wanted to get an interview with Colombia’s chief economist and engage him as an expert source. And I wanted to get a sense of what was going on in the World Bank’s ‘mind.’ That is one way to get good stories, says Adriaan: sit down, be personal and let the other guy open up.

“We don’t have a chief economist right now,” said the World Bank spokesperson. “He left for Ethiopia on a new assignment.”

Well, that killed my first purpose pretty fast. I asked the young woman on the other side of the desk if there were any particularly interesting projects, challenges, etc. going on at the World Bank at the moment.

“Nothing I can think of really…,” said the spokesperson.

Something wasn’t working. And it was either my questions or the World Bank’s policies that were causing a total dry spell.

But instead of standing up, packing my bags, and taking off, I decided to take one last dig. I asked the spokesperson about herself, how she got involved with the bank and how she got to where she is now. It wasn’t a press meeting anymore – it was a friendly interview. In a way we were exchanging ‘fingerprints.’

She told me her story and opened up. Before the World Bank she worked for an NGO that focused on recuperating the lives of land mine victims around Colombia.

“It’s a story that goes untold,” she told me. “And no one really knows the economic costs of land mine damage…”

The hidden costs of Colombia’s land mines. That’s a story. Asking about her, not the World Bank, did two things: it let me connect with a source and build trust. But it also led me to a story that is very much untold.

What followed were a long list of contacts in the financial sector and a contact for learning more about land mines. This is the power of listening and staying curious. If you go into an interview with bias and objectives that are too firm, you will lose valuable time and potentially miss untold stories. If you go in with curiosity and the willingness to listen, you will multiply your sources and, maybe, get the lead on a story that has for long gone untold.

When English is broken

Death of a Spanish Loyalist soldier, 1936 Credit: Robert Capa

War photographer Robert Capa wasn’t known so much for his language skills. But his good sense of humor made up for it. From Andy Rooney’s My War

Capa was Hungarian by birth and, while he was a brilliant photographer and a linguist, the joke about him among the other reporters was that he spoke seven languages – all badly. One British writer with a Hungarian background said Capa was hard to understand in Hungarian.

Capa had a good sense of humor in any language. I recall his advice to amateur photographers like myself: “If your pictures aren’t any good, you weren’t close enough.”

On one occasion when a large number of German, including several generals, was surrendering wholesale, one of the high-ranking Wehrmacht officers objected to having his picture taken. He was a defeated general, and you could understand why he objected. The highest-ranking American officer got in on the argument the German was making on grounds that the Geneva convention prohibited that sort of picture taking.

Capa and the American officer talked it over and the officer finally told the general that he felt our tradition of freedom of the press took precedence over any Geneva convention position on this sort of thing.

The general, who spoke broken English, said, “I am tired all this talk freedom of press.”

Capa laughed. “I’m tired taking pictures all these defeated German generals.”

Tactics like humor and getting close enough to people sound like easy things to learn. Photographers like Brazilian Sebastiao Salgado have taken them to a whole other level. His project on manual labor, Workers, took seven years and 26 countries to finish. Salgado is known for his long term projects, where he spends time living with his subjects, sharing their misery, sharing their laughter, sharing their reality, before he even takes out a camera. The result are photographs like this…

Gold mine at Serra Pelada state of Para, Brazil – 1986 Credit: Sebastiao Salgado

Like Capa, Salgado’s words are hard to understand. But no matter. He still narrates his story with passion. And the diversity of his perspectives, from farm boy to activist to international economist, let you get a sense of how he gets access to sources. Listen to Salgado’s story here…