Saturday, December 19, 2009

No posers, please ...

"Okay, everybody hold still!" You're supposed to pose for the camera, right?

I have to deal with disappointment all the time when potential subjects see me lift my camera to my eye, then start hamming it up and saying "Put my picture in the paper!" Or, sometimes worse, ask me "What do you want me to do?"

Well, my typical response to the first scenario is to simply drop the camera from my eye and walk away. My response to the second query is often to tell them "Be yourself and pretend like I'm not even here."

Why the cold shoulder to people excited about the possibility of being published in their local newspaper? Well, it's nothing personal. It has to do with how I see my role as a photojournalist. My job is not to create family-style photo albums or Facebook-like galleries. Of course, there's nothing wrong with that. Those kinds of photographs create wonderful memories. I shoot plenty of snapshots of family and friends (although not enough if you ask them!)

However, my goal as a photojournalist is to always, whenever possible, capture and present honest, accurate moments that give our citizens a little deeper understanding and appreciation of their community -- not moments created for the benefit of my camera.

It's frequently a tall order, and in the purest sense, unattainable. Most of the time, my subjects are completely aware of my presence. But I strive to keep my influence on my subjects' behavior to an absolute minimum, and I never direct them how to act unless I am openly trying to create an obvious portrait - obvious to both the subject and the photographs' viewers.

Staged photographs are a serious no-no. I never ask subjects to re-create a moment I may have missed, even though they sometimes offer to. Representing a staged moment as a real one would be dishonest and deceiving to our readers. If I miss something - and it happens - I try to capture another moment that helps in understanding the story. If that fails, then, like I said, I will create an obvious portrait that also, hopefully, helps readers to understand the story.

So how do I go about capturing honest moments from subjects who are aware - sometimes painfully - of my presence? Persistence and patience, mostly. Long telephoto lenses can help, since they allow you to stay back and work more inconspicuously. But sometimes wide angle lenses give you a more interesting perspective, allow for greater depth-of-field, and give you a more intimate feeling as a viewer. In that case, you have to take the time to make your subjects comfortable with your presence and gain their trust.

One of the best examples I can think of comes from covering the last day of the school year back in May. Mill Creek Elementary School was the venue. Part of the story was to capture the principal's last day before moving on to head up Southeast Bulloch High School. I followed him around for a bit, but broke away to explore other school activities. I happened upon a classroom full of rambunctious fifth-grade girls. They were celebrating their last day in elementary school before moving on to middle school. I felt like this was a good angle to explore, so I stayed in the classroom for a good while.

As children are prone to do, many of them made their requests to be in the newspaper and made silly poses. That was fine, but I informed them that I couldn't publish those pictures. After explaining why, the girls started to go back to the business of celebrating. One of their activities included karaoke, and their performances, at first, were clearly for my camera. But again, I stayed with the subjects and began photographing the girls watching the performances because their reactions were story-telling.

After some time passed, the girls began to be more natural, eventually ignoring my presence and the click of my shutter. After hundreds of frames, the sound became background noise. As the end of the school day approached, the girls started to become emotional, realizing that some of their classmates would be going to different schools. Tears and hugs started pouring forth, and it was like I wasn't there, even though I continued to make photographs. The story had taken a different turn, one of a much more intimate nature, but a completely honest one. Human experience encompasses so much more than smiling faces and cute poses.

By staying with a subject and spending the time to develop just a little trust, I was able to go beyond the obvious. It wasn't a completely unique moment - it's one most of us have experienced at one time or another. But it was a touching alternative to the many cliche pictures I have taken on the last day of school over the years.

So, when you see me coming with my gear, don't start posing. Save those for your Facebook pages. Don't ask me "What do you want me to do?" Be yourself. Let me share something about who you really are. It's those kinds of moments that will have real value to our community.


  1. Great post and interesting blog Scott.


  2. Thanks Brian. Stop by often and feel free to participate.


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