institute for documentary studies

{Week 2: Photo}

Week 2: Photo


Like last week and undoubtedly the week to come, it’s been a big one: I’ve rarely been quite as provoked to thought as I have these past few days. In photo class, we presented last week’s work, when we went out into a neighborhood and tried to capture it visually. I myself have never been critiqued on my work — it’s easy to feel pleased about your photos when the only critical engagement you’ve had with them is x number of Facebook likes — so I was glad for the honest review that Nelson, the photo teacher, gave:

Me:    Here’s a photo of a couple looking at each other lovingly.

Student 1:    That’s nice. You captured a nice moment.

Student 2:    Ooh. That’s great.

Others:        (Agreement.)


Nelson:        But is it a nice moment?

Woah. Nelson called me out: “I think you failed and they won in this photo,” he said. “They gave you exactly what they wanted to give you.” Your job, he said, is not to capture what they want you to capture. As a photographer, you’re supposed to outstay your welcome.

Nelson said a lot of smart things in the span of two days that have touched on a lot of different aspects of being a photographer; they’ve made me reconsider my approach to photography, how I’ve come to rely on exaggerated angles and shortcuts to visual relevance, and my role and responsibility in documenting. Over the last week, we’ve looked at the work of Garry Winogrand, Henry Wessel, Robert Frank, and other greats, and I’m beginning to see differently and feel as though I’m in the middle of my own photography coming-of-age story; I’m becoming, if not a better photographer, at least a more thoughtful one.

For the past week in Multimedia class, we’ve been prepping for our latest project, Documentary in a Day, where you and a partner record audio and take photos to document your story in the course of 24 hours. The final product will be a minute-and-a-half long audio slideshow, and the only restrictions were that the story take place on or near Sebago Lake — an ice fishing destination only 45 minutes away from Portland — and that it not be absolutely terrible.

Erika — my project partner and roommate, with whom I spend far too much time — and I hustled to get this storyWe spent all of Monday calling people, talking for hours to anyone and their voicemail. A little advice from a barely seasoned Salt student: When you have six possible pitches, are overly optimistic about the first one and spend all your time trying to clinch it, even driving out there to ingratiate yourselves and then get turned down — you are not in a good place. I’m not sure we ate at all that day, and we ended up turning in five vague pitches when two strong ones were due.

We focused our story on a simple idea: Around Sebago Lake, there’s a ton of summer camps. My question was, what happens to them during the winter? We found our subject at the eleventh hour (or more accurately, after the eleventh hour)a caretaker who’d worked at a camp for over a decade. When I got the confirmation that we could come up to document him that weekend, and when I heard him say, “You have my full cooperation,” I might have cried; there’s something extremely satisfying about being able to conceive of an idea from nothing and to form it into a real story.

Things I learned from that day: Photographers do not have it easy. Running after this guy and his two dogs in knee-deep snow was a physical feat, and sweating in 30-degree weather while surrounded by ice was an act that defied nature. I learned how hard it is to coordinate, as a photographer, with an audio producer — to make sure they get the sound they need while you get the shot you want, and how difficult it is to constantly think of the story you’re trying to make and the photos you’ll need to illustrate the audio you’re recording. I learned that you need to be on at all times, for fear of missing a single moment.

But I also learned what it was like to spend a whole day with someone, and how touching and wonderful it is to see how much he can open up to you within a single day, and welcome you into his life. It’s not easy being in someone’s personal space, to ask them to tell you their stories honestly and openly with a camera a foot away and a microphone in their face; being welcomed in makes a big difference.