Do not adjust your set … we are in control

As I have said before photography is about control and as
such the photographer makes a host of decisions in order to make a successful photograph.
When dealing with a human subject there are even more factors that come into
play. When the image is a portrait and not a candid the photographer is taking
control of the situation for the expressed purpose of making that portrait. One
of which is getting the cooperation of the subject.

 

For me there is a clear line between taking control of your
decisions to make a good photograph: choosing your settings, lens, light, angle
of view and most importantly the moment, and then there is directly taking
control of the situation outside of your head. One is documentation and the
other is a portrait or illustration.

 

The joke that we news photographers have is that we know
when the TV people have already been with our subject because when we arrive
the subject asks us “What do you want me to do?” That’s because TV basically
doesn’t just go in to a situation and visually capture what is already in
progress. TV, because it needs a set of sequences to provide some kind of narrative,
figures out while on location and in editing what it wants to see to produce
the narrative that they want. You can just go in a shoot a lot of video and
eventually produce enough footage to make a story but it takes a lot of time in
the field and that basically doesn’t happen in any kind of deadline situation. So
as I think of it, TV news is a name but just about everything that they show,
except for spot/breaking news real time coverage, is in one way or the other an
illustration and not documentary. When working for a newspaper or news magazine
my response to the subjects question is “Do whatever you were doing before I
rang the door bell”.

 

Now I was thumbing through the winners of PDN’s Topknots,
which is their big wedding photography contest and instead of just looking at
the pix I actually read the text that goes with them. Insert your “I read it
for the articles” joke here. Anyhoo, what I found was that for every category
all the winning photos except for just, I think, two the photographers explained
how they set up the scene, directed the subjects and did usually heavy post
processing to get the image. Ok these are wedding photos and not news so they
are not trying to tell the journalistic truth for a Pulitzer. I will cut them
slack on this. However they were generally shot in the “photojournalism” style
and yet they do not show real moments. They are just as contrived and set up as
the staid wedding photos of old, only with a different visual look. When you
spend time to arrange the elements on a table and then enter it as a “details”
shot it is a details shot that was designed by the photographer  to me more of a “still life” where all the
elements are chosen for the image, some or all of which weren’t there to begin
with. Ok let’s call that a quibble. But when the photographer admits to having
an assistant whose job it is to tidy up things in the ready room to make for a
cleaner image and then tells the bride and her mom to “do that over here and
face this way” as part of general event coverage I’m speechless. Yeah yeah,
that’s just me being the documentarian guy but I just think how that couple
will feel in a few years when they are going through their wedding photos. Will
they come to photo after photo and not think about the wonderful moments the
photo shows or will they say, “Oh yeah, that’s when he had me go over there and
do that with your uncle and then he had you get behind us and jump up and down …”
I could not and would not ever let myself be that photographer.

 

It must be that way for the people on so many TV shows when
they watch them afterwards. “Remember when the TV crew came and rearranged our furniture
for that interview? Yeah then they had us sit on the bed pointing at things in
our scrap book. Oh and they made us walk down the street holding hands looking sad
… yeah what was THAT all about?” Ugh!

 

Now I have been enjoying doing portraiture where I put
together a locale, props and such to evoke a particular look, mood and what not
but I’m never going to call something that is manipulated to be “a found moment”.
It may be a moment within the context of a contrived situation but that is
different.

 

We are so used to seeing images that are in one way or the
other controlled, manipulated or outright scripted that we have a hard time
seeing wonderful little slices of life and time as uncontrived. Altered reality
is almost normal to us now. (shiver!) As such, I will never do anything that
will prevent me from sleeping well. Honesty is my policy. Both to my clients as
well as my subjects. How quaint!

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