Photography 101: It's hard to argue with happy.
Working as a photographer, you are a fly on the wall to history. The problem is, sometimes they — those not on the wall — want to take a swatter and beat the living crap out of you. Photographer’s make for an easy target: in some ways, we’re a bother. Everybody moans and groans when they are having their picture taken, and acts like they don’t want it done. Of course, they do: or why hire us to begin with?
Our job is to capture what’s going on. Depending on who hires you, that job may be slightly different. And it’s that juxtaposition that sometimes makes life difficult.
“It’s ok if he looks drunk.” That was the advice given to me from my client, who shall remain nameless. They’d just hired me to capture the state visit of their President — as in, the President of their nation — as he visited OUR President, then GW Bush. They knew I’d worked with FAKT when the Polish President visited, and so now they hired me for THIS president’s visit. The problem was: this newspaper sat on the opposite side of the political spectrum to THAT president, and made no bones about it. They hated the guy. And the images they wanted to print? Well…
It was OK if he looked drunk. In fact, that’s what they WANTED.
I was not used to this. I have always been a corporate photographer, raised in a family of journalists, and was always taught how to capture people in a flattering light. Not drunk.
That day featured a visit to the Rose Garden of the White House, where their president would take questions after the White House spokesman addressed the group of reporters. I was excited. I’d never actually been IN the Rose Garden.
The president — their president — took the podium.
Now, let me back up. The reporter I accompanied spoke very quietly. But he was (is) a major news journalist in this president’s country. So, this president couldn’t ignore a question posed by this journalist, my client, even if he wanted too. Politically, he was stuck.
My client raised his hand. The president visibly rolled his eyes from the podium, and called on my client — who we’ll call Bill.
“mumble, mumble, mumble, mumble,” said Bill, all in the native language of the president’s country.
“I couldn’t hear you, Bill.”
“mumble, mumble, mumble, mumble,” repeated Bill.
Finally, the president put his hand up to his ear, cupping it in back of the lobe so he could hear Bill.
I snapped the picture.
It was run on the front page of Bill’s daily paper, at least a 5×7, which is HUGE for a newspaper, with the headline in 36 point type underneath:
“ARE YOU LISTENING MR. PRESIDENT?”
The speaker stood back stage, waiting for his turn to take the podium. Still a major public figure, he was considered a GOD by this crowd of conservative Republicans he was about to address. I looked. What was he doing? I looked again. He was shoving his dentures up toward the roof of his mouth, making sure they were in place.
Out on stage he took his seat. Do you know the man didn’t open his eyes once? He sat in his chair, legs crossed, dress sock tops showing, eyes completely closed, as he answered one question after another.
Doesn’t make for a flattering picture. Plus, his dentures kept slipping.
“Wait,” said the speaker, some break-out session speaker at some conference in some city somewhere in the United States, “That’s not my good side.”
He turned, pointed his hand out toward the audience, and waited for me to snap the photo. Everyone in the room stopped, turned around at me, and laughed.
I stood there, not about to take the picture, waiting for the speaker to understand he was being…a jerk.
“Aren’t you going to take the photo?”
I fired my flash by hitting the button on the back, clearly not looking through my camera.
“I bet it’s fantastic,” I said, through clenched teeth. My job was to get in, get the photos, get out. Not to disrupt. But what do you do when the speaker stops speaking, stares at you, and disrupts himself? I’ve never had this problem with a speaker comfortable at the podium. Just sayin’.
I so wanted a picture where he looked drunk. But that wasn’t my job.
“Only take 3 photos, no more.”
We were at the White House. Another client, another day. This one a little nervous. It was a White House briefing for their trade organization — not exactly New York Times front page stuff, but it was important to them. I understood.
The problem was, I took the first photo of the speaker, and she shut her eyes. I took another, and she shut her eyes again. On the third, you guessed it, she shut her eyes.
I looked back at my client, glaring at me from the back of the room. I tried to signal the speaker had shut her eyes, that I had to shoot again. She just glared. I took another photo —
Not working —
Finally on the fifth, success, a decent shot. I stopped clicking.
“YOU TOOK FIVE PHOTOS!” said the client after the briefing “FIVE. I SAID THREE.”
I tried to explain the speaker kept shutting her eyes. The client glared. it didn’t matter. She was not happy.
The photo, however, was great, even if it was number 5.
So much of photography isn’t about the photo. Instead, it’s about figuring out what the client wants, and balancing that with reality. On a good day, these go hand in hand: Client wants happy, smiling faces at a party, not a problem! Look! People ARE happy, smiling, and having a great time. Other times, well, it’s more work. And, if it was easy, everyone would do it.
But here’s what I’ve learned after a decade of working events: no matter what, always, always get photos where people look good and look happy. Delete anything and everything that isn’t flattering.
If, in every photo, people look like they are having a great time, the client WILL BE happy. Even if their instruction in the beginning is “make him look drunk”, it’s hard to argue with happy. I’ve never had a client say, “people just look like their having too much fun, what were you thinking?’
So now, I wait like a cat ready to pounce on a mouse. When that speaker pauses his speech, singles me out, and strikes a pose? Now, I crack a joke. I make him recreate scenes from Zoolander at the podium, and click away. Trust me, he only makes that mistake once.
And the photos are great. Not of the speaker, but of the audience roaring with laughter.
It’s hard to argue with happy.