Photos that Define Moments

She sat quietly, off to the side of the booth, softly crying.

My mom noticed her.  She was in a wheel chair, staring at her photo.  She was crying.  Nobody was around her.  Mom was worried.

“What’s wrong?” Mom asked quietly, “why are you crying?”

“This is the first photo of me in a very long time,” the woman said.  “And I love it.”

It turns out, she hadn’t been in the wheel chair that long.  And, she was sensitive about the chair.  She explained to my mom, “it’s just hard seeing myself like that.  In a wheel chair.  Getting older.  It makes me sad.  I won’t take photos.  I got talked into it by my daughter.  And now, look. “
Then glanced up, still crying, “But I don’t even notice the chair in this photo.  I love it.  Thank you.”

And with those words, recounted to me by my mom after the end of the National Book Festival, I realized why I loved photography.  Specifically, event photography.

Let me back up.  If you’re not an event photographer, you may not realize how grueling it can be. The National Book Festival is a great example.  Our client that year was AARP, and they remain a client to this day.  The Book Festival starts at 9 am, and goes until 9 pm.  Twelve hours of straight shooting, with hundreds of participants engaging with the photo experience.  The line never stops.  Older and younger, thinner and heavier:  every type of person funnels through, and each is excited to pose on for the “cover ” of the AARP Magazine.

Each person selects their props — props which loosely follow a “famous books in literature” theme, and poses for the photo in front of a 12′ green screen.  We help position the participant into a flattering pose, snap the photo, and create the combination, finally exporting the image to the printer.  Once the photo prints, the participant emails or texts the image.  The entire process? Just a few moments.

But why are we really there?  Is it just to help people create a cover photo?  To engage a participant with the AARP brand?

No, and that’s what clicked when my mom told me about this woman.  We’re not there just to promote AARP.  We are there to create moments.

When a participant leaves, photo clutched in hand, email delivered to their iPhone, what do they think?  We’ve failed — utterly failed — if they don’t think, “THAT was the best part of the show.”

We’ve failed if three years from now, when they look back on The National Book Festival, they don’t think, “That’s where we did that photo hanging on the fridge.”

We’ve failed if ten years from now, when that woman flips through her photo album, she doesn’t pause at her AARP / National Book Festival photo and think, “Oh, my, that was a good day.”

Photos tell a story.  Great photos define a moment.  We operate in an event space, and when I look back over different events, images jump out (for me) that define that event.  That’s how it is with participants.  We’ve failed if we aren’t one of those defining images.

But the same holds true for all photography.  The best photos in history are those that define a spot in time.  The kiss of a returning soldier in the victory parade.  The child who grabbed our hearts as a Syrian refugee.  Ansel Adams landscapes, forever capturing the majesty of Yosemite in images that solidified our national parks as natural treasures in our American consciousness.

Ansel Adams Mount McKinley Wonder Lake

On the day that woman cried over her photo, I realized that was the real measure of success — whether we succeeded in defining a moment for a participant at an event.  That became the driving force behind who we — US Event Photos — are as photographers.  That became our brand.

I’m always sitting in an airplane, heading somewhere.  Most of the time, I bury my nose in my iPad and read a book, shutting off my brain for a few hours.  Every once in a while, I get involved in airplane conversation.  That’s where the friendly person next to me starts talking: “So, where are you heading?” Followed by, “What do you do?”

When I tell them I’m a photographer, they almost always clap their hands together and say, with wonder in their wide eyes, “OHHHHH, I’D LOVE TO SEE YOUR WORK.”
So, I start showing them photos on my iPhone, defining moments from events we’ve done.  I receive one of two reactions:
But I don’t care.  If they like the images, great.  If they think their neato, fantastic.  But the photos we create are meant to define a moment for one person:  the participant in the photo.  So, it may not have the same appeal to the dude sitting next to me in a flying tube.
But that person in the photo?  If they email me and tell me the image is sitting in a frame on their desk?  Then I’m high for a week.
Airplane not needed.