On Documentary Photography and Breakthroughs

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I took a photo I liked yesterday.

As I mentioned earlier, I went back to school this week, re-taking a version of a documentary photography course that I took more than five years ago. I did it even though it pushed this week’s workload from “busier than it should be for an off-season” to “absolutely insane” because I wanted to try to deepen and broaden my work, and connecting with a fantastic teacher and the sort of psychopathically devoted photographers who attend classes at the International Center of Photography is a great way to do that.

When you spend all of your time as a craftsman, honing and shaping exactly how you see the world, it can be excruciatingly hard to break your habits. On the job, if it’s possible to turn out 1,000 amazing images in a single day, then that’s what I want to do. To that end, I have sort of a Schroedinger’s Cat attitude — frantic and placid at the exact same time. I want to calm my subjects so much that they completely get over the fact that they’re being photographed, but I never, ever stop moving, stop looking, stop rocking and swaying and stepping back and forth. If someone stops me to talk, I’m likely looking through them or over their shoulder to make sure I never missed anything.

Whereas yesterday, with a documentary photographer hat on, probably the most important thing I did was to put my camera down and just talk to people for hours. I had to make some slight changes in how I composed a photo, but I had to make gigantic changes in myself. I wasn’t sure if I’d break through the crusty walls of a craftsman in just five days, but I did.

Starting a good documentary project is hard. Trying to do the whole thing in two days is virtually impossible, and almost doesn’t make sense. Is two days of shooting a documentary, or is it just a short magazine assignment? Amazing projects like The Ninth Floor are generally measured in months or years — so by that scale do you think Jessica Dimmock got a photo she liked for publication every day? Nope. While my normal pace has me thinking about “How good is the 500th-best photo I took today?” in documentary photography the story matters, and the subjects matter, and that’s it. Excessively beautiful photos can actually hurt the story sometimes. The deeper you’re into it, the longer these periods of just sinking in get — you can go weeks without a photo that would fit the final storyline.

It’s context. If I came back from a wedding and liked one photo from that day, I might jump out a window. When I came back from a day’s shoot yesterday and had taken a photo I liked, I was ecstatic. I’d been proud enough that I had woken up that morning with no idea what I was going to do, and by the end of the day had cut through red tape and gotten to a place few photographers would have access to. I set out to tell an uplifting story about overcoming obstacles and how we help each other along the way — and I did. But I kept myself open to surprise, and when the story deepened and the narrative became more complex I saw that, and I shot it, in what I believe to be a magazine-publishable image.

But I’ve also learned in this class that sometimes you have to keep the best images under your hat, or only allow them to be shown within the full and proper context. Because what really matters are the subjects.

Yesterday Andre mentioned a student who was really excited about getting clearance to go to Haiti after the hurricane devastated the island.

“That’s great,” he said, “why are you going?”

“Because I need these photos for my portfolio!”

If you’re gritting your teeth now, you’ll understand why I’m not showing the photo.

Back to School — Trapeze School behind the scenes

I’m good at being uncomfortable, so
I can’t stop changing all the time

I’ve gone back to school. Many years ago I took a documentary course at the International Center of Photography. It was intense. In the land of the Internet, the average critique you get is about as deep as “Nice photo!” or “This has colors!” I was still getting my photographic feet under me in a lot of ways, but my head had already swollen with the weird world of Internet photography culture. People were favoriting my photos on Flickr! Someone recognized me on the street! Clearly I was big time. So it was a shock when someone said that my photos made them physically ill, when critique got so intense and personal that I dug my fingernails into my skin. It was exactly the shock I needed, and helped make me a much better photographer than I was then.

There are a lot of things that are amazing about the Internet culture of photography, and it has helped raise the bar on the industry of wedding photography astonishingly quickly, but there are a lot of photographers out there, and especially the very good ones, who would be helped by the occasional “This is a terrible photo and I hate you for showing it to me.”

I love weddings. I love them so much. I love the craft of them and the art of them. There are so many special skills that it takes to turn out good results every time that even many great documentary photographers and photojournalists don’t have at a high level. But to do that, sometimes you need a big bag of tricks, and those generally conceal far more than they reveal. Where’s the soul, man?

So I’m back, even though my schedule is way more crazy than I thought it would be by mid-January. I should be planning my own workshops right now, not taking one that crams 10 weeks of work into five days. But I refuse to ever stop learning. I happily still take classes and workshops, and will never stop. I love it when extremely experienced wedding photographers take my workshops, because they know that it doesn’t mean that I’m better than them, whatever that means, but that we’re all different from each other and we have some things we can learn along the way.

But I particularly recommend this course, “Passion and Personal Vision” by Andre Lambertson. I don’t use flower-child language like “beautiful soul” easily, but Lambertson has one, and you can see it in his work. I like to think I make people so comfortable I become invisible — and I’ve had brides and grooms say “Where’s Ryan?” when I was three feet in front of them — but we’re talking about a guy so invisible and who inspires such trust that he has photos of kids helping their mothers shoot heroin. His images have soul and patience, and he pushes past discomfort. And I know I have learning left to do on that front.

So yeah, I’m back in school. It’s nuts, and so are the other students. Picture being given two assignments — document a local business and get a stranger to let them into their house and photograph them — at 10 p.m. They’re due by 6 p.m. the next day. I gave the last assignment to one of my workshops and gave them weeks to do it, and maybe a quarter of them did. In those few hours, 85 percent of my class did it. That’s the sort of dedication you only get in art school.

First, my business assignment. I went to Trapeze School New York because it has an interesting story and I was seeking discomfort. TSNY is a second home for a lot of its students, and in a some way a first home for more than a few. They say the way to understand the character of Batman is that Batman is the real person and Bruce Wayne is the costume. And for a lot of flyers and aerialists, that’s exactly how it works. They are circus freaks, they just happen to wear the clothes of a lawyer most of the time. This is a place where a man can practice a strip tease act (the tricks, not the stripping), while 11-year-olds have a birthday party. Where a woman will climb up and wrap herself in silk 15 feet in the air — and just sit there and think for 15 minutes. A lot of the real story of TSNY is in the pauses in-between. It was something I could only begin to tell in my short time there, coming in cold with no prior permission, introducing myself and shooting.

I started with just my Fuji X100 on totally silent mode, trying not to interrupt the scene, to get people used to me, but I soon wanted more ways to tell the story. I felt myself get closer and closer to where I wanted to go, and I wonder what I could do if I had weeks to tell these stories, instead of minutes.

I don’t. Not yet. But I can already feel that yearning to shoot, to tell stories that are deeper and more comprehensive than the ones I’ve told before, even on wedding days. To answer the question “What’s behind that door? What’s behind those eyes? Who are these people?”

Exactly what I need.

My Favorite Portrait (That Isn’t a Portrait)

My Favorite Portrait (That Isn't a Portrait)

Stephanie and Kevin’s wedding on Saturday was spectacular, whimsical and fun — and it was so sweet to see someone I had last known as a little girl in Sunday school grown up into a gorgeous bride. At the end of the night, everyone gathered out for the release of some very cool Thai lanterns into the sky, and as they floated away Stephanie excitedly turned into Kevin just like so.

This was total darkness. ISO 4500, f/1.4, 0.4 second shutter speed. I laid down in the grass to get a shot that couldn’t be made out by human eyes, and I figured they must have seen me, and had perfectly posed for it just like so. I went up to Kevin after and said “Did you know I was there? That pose was perfect!” He said “No … what do you mean?” I showed him the photo on the back of my camera and he started to cry … and I got halfway there myself.