July 27, 2013
Early in my career I was assisting a very experienced photographer who was shooting the CEO of an international company. The CEO had a reputation for being very difficult because he hated to have his photograph taken. The photographer was trying very hard to please the CEO and believed the best way to do that was to be subservient with his behaviour. The result was that the photographer in effect, handed over his “control” or “power” to the CEO. The CEO took this to mean he could act like a spoilt child; he was red faced, aggressive and took out his frustrations on us. The subsequent photographs whilst from a technical point of view were beautifully handled, were of a man who didn’t want to be photographed, taken by a team of people who didn’t want to take his photograph.
It was a valuable lesson for me as I realised that if I present a lower status to a person who is used to being in control it can seem like I am giving them permission to highjack the shoot; leaving me at the whim of their insecurities. To actually make a portrait shoot work for all involved I needed to be working alongside the subject, and encouraging them to be the best they could be in the process, by presenting as an allied fellow professional, who’s in command of the situation.
As a photographer I am in a unique position. I get to be temporarily immersed in ever-different work environments and have very short term working relationships with the people who inhabit them. Whilst I am bound by the rules of the workplace I am unencumbered by the inherent political structures. In effect I am a neutral visitor with an “access all areas” backstage pass. My stay on site is so short that the conventional hierarchical structures don’t need to come into play as they would normally in a workplace. This is the key that allows me to bend the conventions of how I would interact with all of the people that I am working with.
You need to be very positive with kids, don’t get fixated on a one idea, change it up and keep it quick. Make sure you smile, if you smile they will too.
The trick is that I don’t set up a power struggle in the first place. As a freelancer I am not a staff member nor the boss, but an independent consultant. Before status even comes into play I can claim an equal status with anyone I am photographing. Energetically I am acting along the lines of a helpful friend with a common goal. I try and approach every person I meet on site on an equal footing, showing interest in everyone I meet as a person. To the worker I am Andy who has done lots of factory work and to the CEO I am Andy the specialist photographer with 20 years experience.
Without being false I am trying to build a rapport with the subject through equality and respect and I back that up with a generosity of spirit. All of this is built on a foundation of technical competency. Under my guidance the subject is getting first class treatment, though by necessity I am “directing” the shoot. The control is never used as personal control over others but as means to drive the shoot in the direction I need it to go to get the job done. In the 15 years since the cantankerous CEO I have photographed more people than I can remember; from the powerful to the disenfranchised, and have never had anything close to a bad vibe. Through a seamless transition between meet ‘n’ greet and shooting I can divert the attention of the subject and get the job done without letting the subject fall into their patterns around getting photographed; everybody wins. In fact most people I photograph are surprised that they actually enjoyed the shoot AND like the photographs.
Good people skills don’t replace good preparation. It is crucial to be thoroughly prepared, as I discussed in the previous post. You need to actually be on top of all the technicalities and coming up with strong images…especially if you want to get the gig next time!
Empathy is vital, nobody likes to be put in a demeaning situation and regardless of what they present, most people feel vulnerable when getting their photographs taken. My role as the photographer is to provide an appropriate environment for my subjects to feel respected and safe. This allows them to truly let down their guard and then they can let me see who they are. My aim is that we end up with a well-executed shot that has an honest open expression made through an enjoyable process.
Images and text © Andy Rasheed 2013
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