Keepin' It Real

June 2, 2010 

It’s natural for people to put their best selves forward when the newspaper photographer comes to make some photos. Houses are cleaned, shirts are tucked and guts — both physical and behavioral — are sucked in. It’s my job to get past these contrived roadblocks and try to capture something real amidst the Cheese effect. While working a story in-depth, it’s only a matter of time before rapport and comfort cause most subjects to forget about me, but in the daily grind, it’s more of an ethical judgment as you try to find the gems.

A couple weeks ago, I noticed a driveway kiddie pool while cruising through west Pasco on a feature hunt. It looked like there were some people hanging out, so I stopped by to see what was up. It was one of the first warm sunny days we had in a while, and some kids splashing around sounded like a good, if not overdone and obvious, weather shot for the day. When I realized nobody was playing the pool, I chose my words carefully. It’s tempting to ask leading questions like, “When do you think your kids are going to play in the pool again?” Most helpful and friendly people are quick to aid in the photo-making process, but that would affect the situation beyond my comfort levels. Instead, I chatted them up with some ice-breaking small talk as I waited for the kids to relax again.

Two-year-old Kasen didn’t relax, however, and started burying his face into his mom Jen Pellman. They laughed and talked about how uncharacteristic it was for him to be nervous around strangers. Jen and the rest of the family tried to cheer him up:

They’re both pretty cute pictures, and while a cropped version of the second photo would physically remove my presence:

These scenes only happened because I was there to creep out the kid, so overwhelming narcissism notwithstanding, I had to self-veto both. Eventually, Kasen relaxed and started playing with his dump truck:

It’s hard to say whether this would have happened without my arrival. According to the butterfly effect, it most certainly would not have, but it felt like a real enough moment.

More recently, I went to photograph Alyssa Sanchez, a 19-year-old singer/songwriter whose blindness isn’t stopping her from dreaming big. We went to Rainmaker Studios in Kennewick for the photos, and I assumed she was heading to a recording session. As her mother Christine helped her down the stairs to the studio, I snapped a couple shots in anticipation of creating a photo gallery:

After taking off our shoes inside, I asked owner Brook Floyd whether my camera shutter would be a problem and how close I could get to the microphone. He shrugged it off and said I could do whatever I wanted. I asked if the mics would pick up my clicks or if they were directional. I fired off a couple pointless frames to show him how loud it was. Some brief confusion ensued like a really bad comedy sketch before I realized that this whole situation was just for me. There wasn’t going to be any actual recording, so I switched my approach from documenting to portrait-making.

With Christine as my voice-operated light stand, I tried to give a spot-lit feel to the photo:

and got a funky outtake when my flash decided to switch modes and blast the room:

And though I had her sing a few bars here and there to create a more relaxed feel to the photo, I made sure the caption didn’t say that Alyssa was recording a track in the photo:

Alyssa Sanchez, 19, of Kennewick, has been blind since birth and dreams of being a pop star. She's currently recording her second album, composed of songs she wrote herself.

While it doesn’t explicitly (read: awkwardly) say something like “Alyssa Sanchez poses for a portrait...”, my hope is readers don’t see the photo, read the caption and think I was there for a recording session.

It seems nitpicky, but it’s an important distinction to make. Sure, with a little extra flash during a real recording session, Alyssa would look very much the same as she does in the photo. Fudging the truth through reenactments crosses a dangerous ethical boundary and creates a slippery slope. If a re-creation like this is OK, then where do you draw the line?

As it stands, this is a line that only photojournalists seem to be aware of. Subjects are always offering to recreate scenes or pretend to do things while I’m on assignment. I always flatly refuse and make it clear that I don’t stage my photos. Some people probably think I’m just being obtuse, but when the legitimacy of my craft rides solely on trust, even humoring somebody on their still-photo acting skills isn’t an option. I can live with coming off as a pretentious jerk, but I can’t live with presenting something false as real.

(509) 585-7205
Click here to subscribe to the RSS Feed.
Click here to become a fan of Behind the Fold on Facebook
Follow me on Twitter

Tri-City Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service