Thursday, December 5, 2013

Four Final Lessons from the Unfamiliar Genre Project

Undertaking the unfamiliar can be scary, but it can also be exhilarating and formative. I set out this September in a field I know well (journalism) to conquer what was to me a relatively unknown genre (the photo essay). The journey was a semester-long immersion into the world of photography, journalism, and the compilation of photographs into an essay. The product of that journey is a blog with the process documented through reflections, drafts, research, and a final photo essay that portrays Greg Snyder’s shoe shining service at Mount Angel Seminary. I identified four valuable lessons to take from my Unfamiliar Genre Project.

The first and most basic lesson is how to take better photos. I have little experience in photography, so the simple act of snapping pictures is an expanding field of knowledge for me. To obtain a quality photo, I discovered some tricks. First, a good photo is one of many. I can’t hope to get the one, two, or few that I will actually use from a small selection. I ended up shooting Greg three times and averaging around 60 pictures per shoot. From that collection, only 40 made it into my final essay. The next trick is to pay attention to lighting and background. I didn’t do this as well as I would have liked. For this project, I couldn’t choose the venue (as is often the case in journalism), but looking at my collection of photos, I could have chosen better perspectives so that the natural light from the windows illuminated Greg and his craft instead of the background of the photos, darkening the subject I wanted to highlight. I also could have taken different perspectives to add interest to the background of the shots instead of settling for closet doors, clocks, and boring beige walls. Another photography tip is to alert the subject as to what I am trying to do. For candid shots, this doesn’t always work, but I found with Greg that if he knew what I was trying to capture, he would gladly readjust his chair or slow down his shoe shining motion to allow me a better shot. Good photographers don’t settle for mediocre positioning of the subject and background if they can improve it. The last photography gem I gleaned is to aim for variety. Especially in the context of composition, I needed shots from close and far, of Greg and of shoes, with blurred backgrounds and with sharp settings, of seemingly unimportant details like discarded shoelaces and of obviously significant tools such as the box of shoe shining materials Greg owns. The variety made the piece far more curious for the wandering eye.

Along with capturing photos, my second lesson taught me to work within limitations. My tools and time for this project were rather minimal—an iPhone 4 camera, very basic photo editing software, a computer to type interview notes, and three sittings with Greg on Saturday mornings. The iPhone camera struggled to avoid blurriness when Greg was shining. Some of the photos ended up grainy after using a Paintbrush-type program to make collages. I wished a couple of times that I had been able to sit with Greg for a little more time. Despite these challenges, I am proud of the product and process. I told the story fairly thoroughly. I photographed Greg and his surroundings in enough ways to be engaging. I utilized the time I had to spend with Greg well enough to basically use his words to tell the story. The limitations were healthy hurdles that did not inhibit the creative process or the outcome.

My third lesson aligns closely with learning about limitations—I needed to be adaptable in the Unfamiliar Genre Project. To begin, this project presented something entirely new to the instructor and the student, so Sr. Hilda and I learned as we progressed. I found the research to be encouraging, but the materials were scarcer than I would have liked. Our library had a tiny photography section, so I relied almost entirely on photo essays from the Internet. The need for adaptability arose particularly as the project neared completion. I started to assemble the photos and print the research materials for a binder as the assignment dictated, but I found the sheer number of pages to be printed and lower quality of the hard-copy photos made the compilation less attractive. So I turned to one of my favorite recent hobbies—blogging. Putting the project online meant I could post all the photos I found, link to sample photo essays, and work in a medium I enjoy managing.

Adaptability also shined as I fiddled with how to present the photo essay. I wanted an approach more dynamic than a standard picture-caption arrangement. In looking at the notes I had from the interviews with Greg, I knew I had more than enough good quotes and anecdotes than I would need for traditional captions. Rather than waste this resource, I embraced it. I wanted to let the subject speak, so rather than supplement my writing with Greg’s quotes, I turned almost exclusively to his telling of the story to compose the captions. For the most part, I directly quoted him with some paraphrasing or stating the question to allow the quotations some context. I like the result. It’s patterned off the Humans of New York blog, which tells a brief story about each person photographed, whether there are two words or an entire paragraph. Had I not been open to adaptability in this circumstance, I could have ended up with a dissatisfying hard copy notebook of poor-quality black-and-white photos in a traditional setting that didn’t fully tell Greg’s story. I’m thankful that the sample photo essays opened my perspective to new ideas.

The final lesson came about as I worked to synthesize my semester of immersion in the photo essay. Journalism to me is most often a work of synthesis because the journalist takes notes, records quotes, snaps photos, and gathers information that cannot all be used in the published piece. My best work as a journalist developed with projects where I had an abundance of material. While it can be difficult to cut information down, the task of reporting requires a discerning editorial eye to determine what the reader needs to know. The inverted pyramid distinguishes further among the content that is published, which is itself a relatively small percentage of the overall material gathered (at least in a well-reported piece). I had copious photos and information from my time with Greg, but from the collection, I chose the photos I thought told the story best and the quotations and stories that illuminated his trade. The presentation of the work also required looking at the sample photo essays and my own vision for the project in discernment of what would be truest to the narrative. Similar acts of synthesis are vital in many other life circumstances such as deciding what is necessary to say in conversation, how to communicate most effectively in email, and certainly in planning what to say and how to say it when teaching or preaching. The trick in journalism is to say enough without saying too much, to allow the reader to reach conclusions without handing them your perspective, to use an economy of words or photographs to describe a broader account. Synthesizing is a practical journalism skill but also a competency valuable in numerous situations.

On this journey, four skills emerged: Taking quality photos, working with limitations, adaptability, and synthesizing. I enjoyed the process, especially as I put my own photos on the computer screen with a more discriminating eye as to what was worthy of being included in a photo essay. Each sample essay gave me an idea that framed the end work, and elements of a few of the sample essays (especially Humans of New York) echo in my opus.

I am thankful for the Unfamiliar Genre Project, but I am also thankful that it is complete. A venture like this stretches the imagination and the intellect, and the endpoint keeps me striving as the to-do list seems to grow instead of shrink. The hesitations I held at the project's inception gradually washed away. The photo essay is an area of relative comfort now. I wrote on the blog, and it is appropriate to restate my hope that the content is thoughtful and the resulting dialogue fruitful.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Letting the Subject Speak

In looking at the material I recorded from the interviews with Greg, I think I have enough to let Greg's words and ideas be the lone text in the photo essay. A few of the quotes will require the question to come before the text, and a few of the thoughts will need explanation without direction quotation. Other than that, my aim is to let Greg's words tell the story. This isn't a traditional piece of writing, so there is no need for me to formulate a grand presentation of the ideas. The images and quotations will be enough, with the possible exception of an opening paragraph to describe the subject of the story.

I am following the basic idea that Humans of New York prefers--to tell a mini-story with each picture, to let the character emerge, to keep an economy of words, to allow the image to stand forward. I hope it works.

Friday, November 22, 2013

From the Library

I paid a visit to the Mount Angel Library this week to see if any books on photography might advance my understanding and aid in research. The selection was quite limited. Our library is philosophy and theology focused, so photo books have a small place.

I did, however, check out a pair of titles on photography: Picturing the Century, a selection of 157 photos from the National Archives that capture the twentieth century, and LIFE Classic Photographs: A Personal Interpretation, a collection of 50 years worth of LIFE Magazine portraits spanning a broad range of subjects.

The power of these photographs is in their storytelling. Some are simple and others intricate, but all focus on an aspect of life that is vivid and relatable. The cover photos for each book glimpse into lives vastly different but quite relevant:

In one, the working man is portrayed, the wrench and tension exemplifying the grueling work undertaken to build and sustain this country, corporate interests, individual families, and the American dream. In the other, the joy and uninhibited expression of children is unleashed by a high-stepping band leader. American life is encompassed through these two visions, though in starkly different ways.

Photographs have the power to communicate many realities, to tell many stories. As I near the end of my project, I think of what story I want to tell. I spent far more time with Greg than I can relate in one photo essay, and that's the challenge of photography and journalism -- deciding what is most vital. An economy of words and images raises the explanatory value of a journalistic piece. A great story is a balancing act -- the right amount and the right account of the information available. And as a sign in the office of my spiritual director says, one should always "eschew obfuscation." I hope I can find a balance and an angle that treats Greg's story with respect and tells it fully.

Here are a few more examples from the two books:

And one final photograph that has a story worth sharing:

This photograph features the painter Salvador Dali. The man behind the camera, Philippe Halsman, wanted to portray Dali's painting style in a photograph. To create it was a fantastic process, as described in LIFE Classic Photographs: A Personal Interpretation:
"Suspend an easel, two paintings and a small stepladder by wires from a balcony in your studio. Ask your wife, the 'first assistant,' to hold a chair up to the left of the camera. Then, in rapid-fire succession, have your second assistant toss a pail of water, have a third toss a cat borrowed from the butcher and a fourth toss two cats borrowed from a neighbor. Lastly, ask Dali to jump. Click the shutter and go to the darkroom to develop the film to see how it turned out. During the ten minutes it takes to do that, mop up the water and catch the cats. Repeat 26 times until you get what you want. When the photographic tour de force 'Dali Atomicus' was published, Halsman got a lot of flak from cat lovers, especially the vociferous ones in England. He told these critics that the cats survived the picture session better than the exhausted humans. To celebrate, in fact, the cats ate up a very expensive can of Portuguese sardines" (14).
Bustard, Bruce I. Picturing the Century: One Hundred Years of Photography from the National Archives. Seattle: National Archives Trust Fund Board and the University of Washington Press, 1999. Print.

Loengard, John. LIFE Classic Photographs: A Personal Interpretation. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1988. Print.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Shooting Shoes

I’ve got an idea for the photo essay that I’m going to try out. Everyone wears shoes. The styles make a statement about the person in some way. Greg is the “shoe master” of sorts. To show how his shoe shining impacts the community, I want to take photos of people walking around with shined shoes. I’ll have to ask people as I notice their shoes. It might even be slightly awkward the first few times, but it’s a good chance to practice the sort of skills Brandon Stanton uses to build his Humans of New York project. I think if I can get a number of shoes to surround the images of Greg at work, it will make for a playful way to show how he is subtly impacting our little world in St. Benedict.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Uprising: A photo essay on the events in Cairo

My brother Matthew, his wife Juana, and their two boys, Michael (age 10) and William (6) moved to a suburb of Cairo in August, so the events surrounding the city are important to me personally. This photo essay uses photos and sound captured by Time Magazine photographer Dominic Nahr to make a compelling and urgent account of the chaos on the streets of this enormous city. The screams, sirens, gunshots, and battle cries add a chill to the presentation that music and pictures would lack. The more senses that are engaged, the better. Typically photos and sound aren’t combined, but with the multimedia allowing for creative journalism, these sorts of packages are now frequent online. I took one video of Greg shining a shoe fairly aggressively but mainly stuck to still photos. If the opportunity for another video presents itself, it might be an interesting addition to the project.

Source: Nahr, Dominic. “The Uprising.” Magnum in Motion. 2011. Magnum Photos, Inc. Online.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Associated Press Guide to Photojournalism

A few quotations were memorable from the Associated Press guide to Photojournalism. These can be guideposts for the work. Here are the ones I noticed:
  • “‘This is what separates a good photographer from a mediocre one,’ Reinke says, ‘the ability to go with the flow, but also to have a general idea of how the flow goes’” (20).
  • “AP photographer Cliff Schiappa says, ‘Our prime responsibility is to communicate.’ And, he adds, ‘if your style causes static in the signal, in the communication, then you are not a success’” (31).
  • “Amy Sancetta: ‘Be kind to the people that you work with, your colleagues or the subjects of your photos. The subjects may be opening a part of their life to you that they’ve not shared with others’” (59).
  • “‘Photography is 90% anticipation and 10% pressing the button at the right time’” (72).
  • “‘Don’t go in with a list of photographs,’ he says. ‘You must not control the situation but you do need to put yourself in the situation’” (92).
I paid particular attention to the section on feature photography because this composes most of what we do for the MAS Journalism Blog. We aren’t doing hard-hitting news or very often encountering territory where moral lines are blurred. Rather, we want to give readers a perspective about life on the hilltop. This story about Greg looks at the interest of one seminarian that is being carried in a visible way on the feet of his peers as they meander the campus. Some of the guidelines of photojournalism certainly apply, and the tips found in the quotations above add some substance to the work I am trying to do. Though I won’t be sneaking behind the restricted areas or searching for hours to get the right shot, I will try my best to be inventive, truthful, and competent in photographing Greg for this story.

Source: Horton, Brian. Associated Press Guide to Photo Journalism. Second ed. New York: McGraw-Hill Books, 2001. Print.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Sit and Stay: Iconic images of Hollywood stars and their dogs

I searched Time Magazine’s photo essays online until I found one I thought could be comparable to the project I am tackling, and this is it: Photos of Hollywood stars with their dogs. Why is it comparable? Most of the photos essays tackle current events or some fantastical viewings of space or eclipses. I wanted a modest project focused on the human story, a project with images that are fairly easy to capture, and a project with photos that evoke an emotion based on a simple appreciation for life’s nuances. Capturing celebrities with their dogs paints them as common people feeling even though they were in the spotlight. The photos aren’t particularly special, but each illustrates the bond between pooch and owner. Pet lovers would enjoy this photo essay, but so would historians, those interested in old cinema, Hollywood gossips, nostalgic old timers, and even those with an appreciation for fine, simple, black-and-white photography. The audience is narrow, the focus is apparent, the subject is simple enough. I like this essay for its storytelling ability with an everyday concept (people and their dogs) taken in a specific context (lives of celebrities). My essay will probably be similar in capturing an ordinary task (caring for shoes) in the context of Greg’s shoe shining service at Mount Angel. He may not be a celebrity, but he is interesting in his odd hobby.

Below are images from the Sit and Stay photo essay.

Tony Curtis in his Johnny Dark costume in Las Vegas in 1953, with a boxer puppy that was given to him by a fan.
Elizabeth Taylor bathing her cocker spaniel, Amy, in 1950.

Marilyn Monroe with her Maltese, Maf, in 1961. Maf, short for 'Mafia', was Monroe's last dog, and was given to her by Frank Sinatra.
Don Ameche in the pool with his Irish setter, Flanagan, in 1939.
Audrey Hepburn backstage at Paramount Studios with her Yorkshire terrier, Mr. Famous, in California in 1961.
Catherine Deneuve cuddles a tiny pup while filming The Umbrellas of Cherbourg in 1964.
Charles Butterworth dines with his wire fox terrier in 1935.
Elvis Presley poses with a basset hound in honor of his hit song, 'Hound Dog,' at the International Amphitheater in Chicago, in March of 1957.
Flash, MGM's star canine who appeared as a puppy in His Master's Voice, appeared in another eight films for the studio before retiring in 1938.
Charlie Chaplin with his A Dog's Life co-star, Scraps, in 1918.

Source: “Sit and Stay: Iconic Images of Hollywood Stars and their Dogs.” Time Magazine. Time, Inc., 20 Sept. 2013. Web. 10 Nov. 2013 <>. (Note: Originally from Dance, Robert. Hollywood Dogs: Pictures from the John Kobal Foundation. Suffolk, United Kingdom: The John Kobal Foundation, 2013.)