Joe Penney

Joe Penney

Dakar, Senegal
New York City, United States
“I want the viewers to see the similarities between the subject in the picture and themselves, despite the differences that may exist.”


I cover politics, elections, political crises or conflicts, society and daily life stories.

One Shot

. OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso. REUTERS/Joe Penney
An anti-government protester wears a sash taken from the looted parliament building in Ouagadougou.
“The day before I took this picture protesters had burned down the parliament building in order to stop then-President Blaise Compaoré from extending his 27 year old hold on power in the West African country. It was early on a Friday morning and later that day Compaoré left the country aboard a French helicopter, stepping down under mass protests. The golden light of the morning, the smoke from burning tires, and the red and green sash in Ouagadougou’s Place de la Revolution all leave a lasting impression.”


My earliest memory of photography is probably when I was being photographed for class pictures in elementary school, which I was not a fan of.

When I was 12 I took a class on how to use an SLR camera at an art school. I had assignments each week to work on different technical aspects of photography, and grew to love the still image.

My first assignment, if you can call it that, was covering then-French-presidential candidate Segolene Royal when she visited Dakar in 2009. I was so trigger-happy with the camera that I think I took upwards of 1200 pictures in less than four full hours or shooting.

Covering Burkina Faso left a huge mark on me because I had never witnessed such strongly emotional and powerful events before. But I would say that every story I cover impacts me in a different way, and it’s hard to quantify or rank them.

I like to do a wide range of stories, but the ones that excite me the most are typically political in nature and contain in them issues of relations between the West and Africa. What do not excite me are press conferences.

I have two sets of people I think about every time I take a picture. The first is the subject of the picture: Does this person feel she or he has been accurately represented? The second group of people I think about are the people who see my photos in the rest of the world and who are not familiar with Africa. Western photographic representations of Africa have a tortured past and as an American taking pictures in this continent I have to be aware of that past.

I have to represent the people and places I am photographing in such a way that the viewer in a more wealthy country like the US will be able to connect with the person in the picture on a basic, human level. I want the viewers to see the similarities between the subject in the picture and themselves, despite the differences that may exist.

The first big lesson I’ve learned is to listen to the people I am photographing. If I am trying to tell their stories, I need to listen closely to what they have to say. And the second is to cover stories that I care about. I’ve found that if I’m not interested in the story, if I don’t engage with it on a personal level and invest some of myself into the story, then I don’t do as good a job.

As a photographer I look up to many different people. I take a lot of inspiration from Finbarr O’Reilly’s work and its sheer beauty, I am a big fan of Nina Berman’s Homeland series on the militarism of American society, as well as Steve Liss’s project on juvenile detention.

I love the films of Mauritanian director Abderrahmane Sissako for their deep soul-searching themes and their aesthetic splendor, which celebrate life in West Africa. And I also love the literary works of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who so eloquently explores the links between Nigeria and the West.

Behind the Scenes

. Mali. Reuters/Cheick Diouara
Reuters photographer Joe Penney takes a picture of a Malian gold miner.