In the Story Building classes I teach at Boston University Center for Digital Imaging Arts my students are required to come up with a story ideas that they will cover exclusively for the duration of our class. One of the things I end up explaining again and again is, “Just because the idea makes a good STORY, it doesn’t necessarily mean it will make a good PHOTO STORY.”
Making them throw out half a dozen story ideas to get to one that has visual potential never makes me very popular with them, but one day they’ll realize what a gift it was to throw out the boring in pursuit the visual. In the professional world, you aren’t afforded the same luxury too often.
Photojournalist are regularly called on to illustrate stories that are frustratingly non-visual. One such story would be the anniversary of when the Suzy B. Hero rescued a cat stuck in a tree during the lighting storm of 1970. Good story perhaps but it happened in the past and now there is nothing left to shoot. Occasionally, on slow news days, the story is little more than a recycled press release promoting the opening of a new business (Zzzzzzzzz). And often it is about a Johnny B. Corporate, an amazing CEO who turned around a company saved 500 jobs at a widget factory.
So what is a photographer to do? Time for a Portrait.
Portraits are often the default way to illustrate a story when the story isn’t unfolding in front of you, or is just too boring to make a photo out of. Because of this, portraits get assigned a lot (I’d say portraits make up almost a third of what I shoot.)
I approach certain portraits situations with a mild amount of dread, knowing that the story doesn’t have a visual hook to build a strong portrait around. I know that if there isn’t some kind of concept, I (and most likely my editor) won’t be completely satisfied. For me to really be happy with a portrait, it has to function on 3 levels.
Level 1: It has to be visually appealing.
Level 2: It should be able to communicate the gist of the story all by itself, as if it were to stand apart from the text.
Level 3: In an ideal portrait, the image is shot in a way that it provokes thought or stirs emotion.
To illustrate, I recently worked on a story from the New York Times about kids who grow up with a hyphenated last name and the choices they make once they have kids of their own. It is a interesting story because it is something that probably many of us have wondered about at one time or another. But, unfortunately there isn’t much of a visual concept there that you can weave into your photo. Here is the result:
Level 1: check.
Another New York Times story I did this month was about a CEO whose development company was doing some long awaited construction work in South Boston. Here is that result:
Level 1: check. The light and composition are decent.
Level 2: check. The layer of construction on the right gives you an idea about what the story is about.
But occasionally, around comes the portrait assignments that you yearn for. Ones which you’re given enough lead time to really think about executing beforehand or ones which the editor really wants you to take some risks. Here are two such assignments I had recently:
The first story was for the Boston Globe about a surgeon named Bohdan Pomahac. He and his team at Brigham and Women’s hospital in Boston have completed 4 face transplant surgeries, which has made the Brigham the second busiest center in the world for the experimental operation.
Playing with the concepts of the interchangability of body parts, particularly facial elements, I decided to do a collage, made of of multiple pictures of Dr. Pomahac’s face, a nose, an eye, an ear, all stitched together after the shoot. Here is what we got:
The second portrait was a story for the Globe Sunday Magazine about man named Dennis Maher who was convicted of committing a series of violent sexual crimes but was later exonerated with the help of DNA evidence after spending more than 19 years in jail, wrongly accused.
Working with the idea loss – loss of time, loss of a life – and working with the weather conditions that the day gave me, I eventually came up with this:
Unfortunately, as satisfied as I was with these two portraits, the powers at be decided that in both cases the images were too risky for the story. And that, is the final lesson of the day. Cover your ass. Take the less risky shots first then experiment. You can check the story links to see what ultimately ran.
Sigh. At least this blog “Sight Unseen” continues to live up to its name.