Finbarr O'Reilly

Three Senegalese models in flowing pink dresses show off a fashion line in front of a building in Dakar with flaking blue walls.

This image of the Dakar fashion scene in Senegal won Canon Ambassador Finbarr O'Reilly first prize in the Portraits, Singles category in the 2019 World Press Photo contest. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV) with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 24mm, 1/320 sec, f/4 and ISO250. © Finbarr O'Reilly

Canon Ambassador Finbarr O'Reilly began his career in journalism as a writer, but later discovered he could communicate the stories he was covering more effectively with photography. "It really struck me that telling stories through images has this very immediate and emotional impact," he says.

"Often my written reports were condensed into briefs or overshadowed by news from the Middle East. But then, when I started taking photos to accompany my stories, my pictures were suddenly on the front pages of international newspapers and across double-page spreads in major European magazines. It's important to drive people to find out more about a situation by reading the accompanying text, but images can capture people's attention much more quickly than a bank of words."

Since then, Finbarr has covered major international conflicts and humanitarian disasters, particularly in Africa and the Middle East. He is a regular contributor to The New York Times and his work has won him two World Press Photo awards: the World Press Photo of the Year in 2006 and first prize in the Portraits, Singles category in 2019. He also won a 2020 News & Documentary Emmy® for Outstanding Video Journalism: News for producing the PBS FRONTLINE documentary Ebola in Congo.

Finbarr's love of travel, combined with a fascination for what's happening around the world, was established from an early age. Born in Swansea, Wales, in 1971, he was raised in Dublin, Republic of Ireland until the age of nine, when his family moved to Vancouver, Canada. After graduating, he spent a year backpacking through East and Southern Africa before returning to Canada, training as a journalist and settling into jobs writing about arts, entertainment and popular culture.

Black and white headshot of Canon Ambassador and leading news photojournalist Finbarr O'Reilly.
Location: Dublin, Republic of Ireland

Specialist areas: Photojournalism

Favourite kit:

Canon EOS 5D Mark III
Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM
A malnourished child presses his fingers against the lips of his mother at an emergency feeding centre in Niger.

Finbarr's 2006 World Press Photo of the Year winning image shows the fingers of malnourished one-year-old Alassa Galisou press against the lips of his mother, Fatou Ousseini, at an emergency feeding centre in Tahoua, Niger. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D (now succeeded by the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III) with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L USM lens at 70mm, 1/80 sec, f/2.8 and ISO320. © Finbarr O'Reilly

In 2001, the urge to travel overseas and cover harder news stories led Finbarr to take a job as a correspondent for the international news agency Reuters, initially based in Kinshasa, Congo, then Rwanda. Photography had always been one of his main interests and after having success in using it to bring stories to wider attention, he switched to become Reuters' Chief Photographer for West and Central Africa in 2005.

From early in his career, Finbarr sought to avoid the common narratives defining foreign media coverage from the countries he worked in. "I was photographing conflicts and coups and famines, but always tried to look past the obvious scenes of violence and distress," he says.

"As photojournalists, we need to be conscious of how we work, so that we're not producing images that desensitise us and dehumanise those who are already vulnerable, marginalised or oppressed. We have a responsibility not to inflict further harm upon those we are documenting."

Four shoeless children play with a large tyre at the entrance to a South African squatter camp.

Children play with a tyre at the entrance to a Krugersdorp squatter camp in this image from Finbarr's South Africa: White Poverty collection. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II with a Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L USM lens (now succeeded by the Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM) at 28mm, 1/250 sec, f/3.5 and ISO160. © Finbarr O'Reilly

Finbarr lived and worked in African, Asian and Middle Eastern countries including Democratic Republic of the Congo, Chad, Afghanistan, Libya and Gaza for 12 years. However, after covering the Gaza War in 2014, he consciously stepped back from conflict photography and co-wrote a book, Shooting Ghosts, with former US Marine Thomas J Brennan about his experiences.

Since the book was published in 2017, Finbarr has covered many stories for The New York Times on health and social issues, including Ebola in Congo, Islamic extremism in Africa's Sahel region and the involvement of criminal networks in Madagascar's vanilla trade.

He has been awarded Fellowships from both Yale and Harvard Universities and was chosen as the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize exhibition photographer. He is also the 2020 Laureate of the Prix Carmignac, an award that will enable him to produce an in-depth photo reportage on a range of contemporary issues in the Congo.

For both his Nobel and Carmignac commissions, Finbarr collaborated with Ethiopian and Congolese photographers to produce joint exhibitions and projects, in which local photographers shaped the narratives around their own countries. Much of his work now involves mentoring emerging photographers.

What are the main skills needed to be a photojournalist?

"You need to have curiosity, patience and determination because this isn't an easy profession. You need to have an understanding that things happen slowly and that the best work takes time. Ultimately, you need to really care about the stories and people you're photographing. Today, it's also a shrinking profession so you need to be very entrepreneurial about how you do it and smart about how you market yourself on social media."

What's been your relationship with other photographers in the field?

"Photojournalism is competitive, but in most of the environments I've worked there's been a really strong sense of camaraderie and support for each other. For most photographers it's about working together to get the story to a wider audience."

How have you changed as a photographer during your career?

"As I've grown as a photographer, I've consciously worked to challenge preconceived notions about places. Now I'm increasingly engaged with issues around representation and looking at who's telling the story. Across our industry, we really need to be thinking about where the storytelling power lies, who controls the narrative, and who shapes the stories we see. Those of us in positions of privilege need to be sharing our opportunities and what we've learned through experience."

One thing we know

Finbarr O'Reilly

"The advice I'd give to emerging and aspiring photographers who want to get noticed is to look at their communities and examine how issues of global relevance are playing out in their own backyards. A photojournalist doesn't have to go halfway around the world to tell a story and ultimately every story is a local story in some way. Look at an issue around justice, policing or health, or how any really relevant global issues are playing out in your community. If you can link your local story to wider contemporary issues it's very interesting."

Instagram: @finbarroreilly

Twitter: @finbarroreilly


Finbarr O'Reilly's kitbag

The key kit that the pros use to take their photographs

Finbarr O'Reilly's kitbag containing Canon cameras, lenses and accessories, as well as a pen and earplugs.


Canon EOS 5D Mark IV

The successor to the Canon EOS 5D Mark III that Finbarr uses is designed to perform in every situation. "The EOS 5D Mark III is a nice compact size and I like the feel of it in my hands. It has a muted shutter sound, which is good for working in a quiet environment, and good low-light sensitivity. The overall quality is outstanding," says Finbarr.

Canon EOS M6 Mark II

The ultimate content creation camera, the EOS M6 Mark II is packed with technology that lets you capture superb images and 4K movies of your life on the move, and share them easily. "I've used this camera on assignments and have been really impressed with the image quality," says Finbarr. "Using the flip-up touchscreen, I can shoot while holding the camera at waist level, so when I'm photographing people the images look more natural and candid. It's been the first time I've used a mirrorless camera and it's been a revelation for me."

Canon EOS-1D X Mark III

The latest model in the 1D series that Finbarr has long relied upon, the EOS-1D X Mark III helps you capture more of life's unrepeatable moments, and to tell your visual story to the world. Finbarr says: "This is a bigger and more robust camera, so I'd use it if I'm going on an embed with the military or anything to do with rioting or civil unrest, where I need the faster frame rate and the capacity to take knocks."


Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM

A professional-quality standard zoom that offers outstanding image quality and a fast f/2.8 aperture throughout its zoom range. "I like the versatility of this lens and usually keep it on one of my two camera bodies. I don't often shoot at the long end; usually 24mm-33mm is my sweet spot. It gives me a little bit more flexibility than I have when shooting with a prime lens," says Finbarr.

Canon EF 24mm f/1.4L II USM

The ultimate in fast aperture wide-angle lenses. UD and aspherical elements eliminate distortion and aberrations for stunning results. A f/1.4 maximum aperture allows hand-held shooting in low light. Finbarr says: "I usually keep the 24mm prime on my second camera body so I can shoot in lower light and also because I love prime lenses' sharpness and luminosity."

Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM

With its incredible f/1.2 maximum aperture, the super fast EF 50mm f/1.2L USM is a consummate low-light performer. A lens that allows fine creative control over focusing and depth of field. "I usually have a 50mm prime in my waistband if I'm covering something where events are moving quickly and I want to switch from wider scenes to shooting a portrait," says Finbarr.

Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM

A short telephoto focal length, combined with a large maximum aperture and fast autofocus speed, make the EF 85mm f/1.8 USM an ideal optic for any photographer shooting portraiture. Finbarr says: "If I know I'm going to a portrait session I'll bring the 85mm because it's an ideal portrait lens, so crisp and sharp with a lovely shallow depth of field if needed."

Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L USM

A professional quality, fast-aperture telephoto zoom lens popular with wildlife and sports photographers, as well as those shooting weddings and portraiture. "I don't often use this lens now that I no longer shoot for the wire, but it's always useful to bring on assignment just in case I need to shoot anything from a distance," Finbarr says.


Small LED lamp

"I don't use flash, but I do often carry a small LED lamp that I can either hold off-camera in my hand or attach to the hotshoe mount on the camera. This can offer a controlled bit of fill-in light or provide that little pinpoint of light in an eye that just lifts the image slightly in dim settings," says Finbarr.

Notebook and pen

Finbarr says he always carries these on assignment "for obvious reasons".


"I never travel without earplugs in my pocket. They're useful for reducing ambient noise on flights, in armoured vehicles and helicopters, and when sleeping in noisy environments – especially if sharing a hotel room or tent with someone who snores," Finbarr says.

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