Are you a Director or a Photographer?
I was setting up in a hurry for a meet and greet.
It was a generic hotel ball room, subdivided into bland breakout rooms. Airwall to the left, airwall to the right. Airwall in front.
There were a few round tables scattered about, with slightly stained hotel tablecloths hanging a bit askew. A few chairs around; it could have been any hotel, in any city, anywhere in the world.
Fun fact: I can identify most hotel brands by their carpeting when no other information is available. I’m great on Hotwire. I know by the furnishing and carpeting what hotel brand the anonymous room is BEFORE paying.
It takes about two hours to set up a meet and greet. First, I run the electric. Here’s a hint: airwalls have no power outlets. The electric almost always comes from the front or back wall, depending on which is an actual wall. Then comes setting up the background, then the lights, then rearranging the tables, then establishing internet, computer, camera. Then the iPads and printers.
Finally, all that was done. A man quietly worked at one of the tables as I set up, hiding from the event going on in other rooms. A common sight.
“Excuse me,” I said to him. “I don’t mean to interrupt, but could you be my guinea pig so I can test the system?”
“Sure,” he said, putting his phone down and striding over to the big X taped in front of the background.
I snapped a photo, eyeballed it, adjusted, did another. Perfect.
“Thanks,” I said. He smiled and sat back at the table.
A few minutes later, my client walked in.
“Oh!” She said, “there you are!” She wasn’t talking to me — she was talking to the man at the table. My test subject.
“Mike, I guess you met Mr. Spike Lee?”
I had no idea the man at the table was the famous director. I never know who I’m photographing for a meet and greet, and I’m terrible at recognizing celebrities. I wouldn’t have recognized Spike Lee if he was wearing a shirt that said, “Hi, I’m Spike Lee!” However, I wasn’t about to give away my little secret.
“Oh, yes!” I said, clapping my hands enthusiastically and putting a slightly weird smile on my face. I looked like a realtor exclaiming how beautiful the southern exposure light is, streaming through the window above the avocado colored sink in the over-priced house she’s showing. “He helped me with a test photo.”
It came out kinda loud and slightly insane.
Mr. Lee looked me up and down. A smile crept over his (looking back on it) rather distinctive and unique face. (In fairness to me, since he was on typing on his Blackberry, he wasn’t wearing his trademark glasses.)
“You had no idea who I was,” he said, matter-of-factly.
A few minutes later, the participants lined up. Each entered from the left, shook hands with the infamous director, and smiled as I took their photo.
The problem is this. I’ve never been good at just clicking a photo and moving on. I eyeball each person, making sure they look good. I ensure Spike Lee looks right, that everyone is standing in the right spot, that they’re smiling, that their coats, shirts, tie, dresses, aren’t all funky. I correct things I catch. I talk to each participant as they do the grip-and-grin, cracking jokes (which sometimes land with a thud) and trying to make each photo warm, friendly, and less grip-and-grin looking.
That all must happen super quick. For a meet and greet, almost by definition, there’s a line of people moving through the queue. It’s not the kind of situation where you can take tons of time with each person, or the thing would drag on forever.
And here’s a behind-the-scenes fact: celebrities hate doing meet and greets. It doesn’t matter who they are, they hate it. And, typically, I’m told by them — at the beginning of the shoot — “I HATE THIS SHIT.”
It reminds me of something Oprah said. When she was interviewed, she was asked, “what’s the one thing everyone asks YOU when you interview THEM?” Sort of a throw away, softball question. I just heard a journalist on CNN ask a world-renowned scientist who just made a huge discovery about fusion or fission or something, ask, “what if we run out of ocean water?”
Anyway, Oprah looked pensive, giving the not-so-serious question some genuine Oprah consideration.
“After I do an interview,” she pondered, “and it doesn’t matter who the person is, they all ask me one thing: ‘Was that OK?’ It doesn’t matter if they are the President of the United States or the president of local union 27, they all ask, ‘Was that Ok?'”
I found that interesting. And, in my own limited experience doing interviews for podcasts, after each interview, that is precisely what the guest would ask me. See? Oprah and I are so similar. My sister from another mother. Just in front of Britney. That’s another story – something about Vegas nose.
Anyway, before every meet and greet, every celebrity — it doesn’t matter if they’re Mike Rowe from Dirtiest Jobs or Steve Jobs himself (though he is dead) each says the same thing: I HATE THIS SHIT. Maybe it’s worded slightly differently or put more diplomatically. But it all boils down to the same sentiment.
Back to Spike Lee. About halfway through the meet and greet, a participant looked at me and said, “You’re bossy.”
Yes. Yes, I am. I’m bossy so you look good. I’m bossy so you shut your mouth and stop talking, instead of taking the photo as your lips do bizarre things as you try to speak out of the side of your mouth while facing the camera thinking I’m going to click. I’m not. I’m bossy so your dress, a size or two too small, clinging to your stomach, is pulled down and a skin bulge isn’t hanging out. I’m bossy so that your three chins aren’t showing as much. I’m bossy so you look good.
It used to piss my photographer mother off when people would say the same thing to her (remember she founded our business and worked on Capitol Hill for years). I think she thought they didn’t like a woman in charge. But it’s not that, I don’t think. I think people aren’t used to photographers engaging. They’re just used to the photographer standing, clicking a photo, and moving on – not saying anything, or muttering something stupid like “One, two three! Oh, WONDERFUL!” (See: The Queen)
And if you watch movies and TV shows, you see photographers doing just that.
On RuPaul’s Drag Race (insert country here), they always have a photo shoot at the beginning of the series – the first mini challenge. And each time, there’s some super celebrity photographer doing the shoot. What surprises me most is that photographer almost never talks to the drag queen he’s shooting. Often, not a peep. If they do say something, it’s a little nasty. I guess charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent don’t extend to the show’s photographers.
And while the photos captured are usually ok, there’s something (in my humble opinion) missing. Personality. Which is saying something because ALL drag queens have tons of personality. At least, all the ones I’ve met. Photographers, not so much.
I think it’s because the famous photographer is used to working in a quiet studio, not in an event setting. They look a little deer-in-the-headlights being both in front of and behind the camera.
Back to Spike Lee.
At the end of the meet and greet, after being called bossy by participants, he looked at me. He looked me up and down, like how he looked at me before he called me out for not knowing who he was. The same smile played across his lips.
“Young man,” he said, “you should have been a director.”
I took the comment back to my hotel room, mulling it over in my brain. It turned around in my unconscious. Twirled and twisted, pirouetting as I ate a generic hotel pasta dinner.
Finally, I had one of those ah-hah moments everyone talks about.
In many ways, I am a director during a photo shoot. Really, it’s the same as making a little, tiny one-frame movie.
The fact that Spike Lee recognized that was one of the best compliments of my life.
The meet and greet with Lee was half a dozen years ago. But, if anything, I’ve gotten worse. Or better, depending on your view. The older I get, the more photo shoots I capture, the more I realize the key to great photos is to communicate with the people in front of you.
You know, tell them what to do so they look as great as they possibly can.
Be fun, and nice, but bossy. Be the opposite of your typical wedding photographer. The antithesis of those celebrity photographers on RuPaul’s Drag Race. Communicate. Be funny. Be warm. Help who is in front of the camera relax. The photos will go from good to great. The photos, even meet and greet images, will show warmth, personality, and vitality.
The participants will love them. The celebrity will love them.
All because you were bossy.
All because you are the director.