About Face

November 3, 2011 

Humor is a good crutch to lean on for portraiture. If your subject is uncomfortable in front of the camera, crack a joke to loosen her up. Even terrible jokes can work if it makes someone realize the photographer is a bigger dork than he is. If there are multiple subjects, I like having them reminisce about funny situations to get a more spontaneous feel to the set-up situation.

It's an easy way to get a fun photo because even though some people look a little goofy when they're really laughing, there's always a certain charm to it.

Obviously, this technique isn't always appropriate, and our recent month-long series, Faces of Cancer, is a prime example.

It's a heavy subject that I was excited to tackle — not only for the challenge of working outside my comfort zone, but to meet the people behind some amazing stories I had overheard Interactive Media Director Andy Perdue mentioning when he started this project.

First was Ed Chapman of West Richland, a retired fire chief who won his battle with laryngeal cancer, but now speaks through a stoma.

I knew I would be shooting roughly a quarter of the 31 portraits, so coming up with a set style for the portrait series wouldn't work. I did, however, want to make sure the focus was on the people, with less reliance on the usual heavy-handed context in typical environmental portraits. Ed's house did have a really nice display of firefighting memorabilia to work with.

This shot of Ed was a little too serious for the tone of his story,

and this one too jokey:

Both also look too cluttered with distracting reflections, so I chose this shot,

which I hope shows a bit of his personality, his resilience and inspirational optimism.

Next for me was Cancer WellFit instructor Lori Powell. Her first husband died from melanoma and she now teaches the fitness class to those currently undergoing treatment. I wanted to show the strength and understanding needed to do such a thing and picked a corner of the gym that featured some fitting advice.

I went with a similar two-light setup that I used for Ed's portrait, with a large soft source on Lori and a light for the background. I wanted some interesting shadows on their faces to help convey a hint of moodiness. If I would have left it up to ambient light for the background, either those shadows wouldn't be there, or the background would be too dark. If that doesn't make sense, go poke around at The Strobist's beginner's tutorials.

Even though I had a feeling it wouldn't work, I asked Lori to go through the motions on the machine:

It's a hokey concept made even lamer by the "Keep Chin Up" poster. I went with this shot:

I like it alright except for my sloppy control over the background light, which spilled onto that other piece of equipment in every shot. I think it's appropriate for the story and shows her physical strength along with hinting at those less tangible qualities I mentioned earlier.

Despite the serious nature of these shoots, however, I didn't totally change my personality. I think it's a cheap shot to make your subject dwell on the sadness they've experienced in their lives to elicit some emotion for the photo. I tried to add some moments of lightness to the session and some joking around with Lori led to some fun outtakes:

Photographing American Cancer Society lobbyist Darlene Varley presented a different challenge. I met her at the local society branch, where she doesn't work from. They graciously provided an office for us to use, but the cramped room didn't offer much to work with. I also wanted to avoid the obvious American Cancer Society sign. I opted for the conference room, which gave me plenty of space and a nice picture of flowers to incorporate.

Her story was one of hope for a future that depends on research money, so I played on the lobbyist angle with a warm expression,

which I liked more than the serious-looking frames:

You're probably getting what my approach is to these by now, so I'll run through some quickly. Bonnie Oneonta-Becraft is a chaplain at the Tri-Cities Cancer Center, where she runs the Kids Konnection program. It's for kids whose parents are going through treatment and is a mixture of education, support and fun. These outtakes had a little too much of the arts and crafts taking up the frame,

and I went with this frame:

Teri Butz had a great mirror near a family portrait, which fit her story of putting familial concerns before her own health in a tough 2007,

but I shot a more straightforward photo in case the concept fell flat on the big screen:

Cari Mitchell founded Chest of Hope - Tri-Cities in 2006 after being diagnosed with breast cancer. She runs a golf tournament at Canyon Lakes Golf Course in Kennewick, where she used to work, to raise money for the charity that helps women going through breast cancer treatment:

This one took some work since her glasses were transitions and it was cold and windy outside. Shooting from inside to get the golf course background meant managing reflections in a different way to avoid glare from my lights. The incongruous lighting direction makes for a fake backdrop look, though, and it's something I need to remember for the future.

Here was another option,

but I liked her warmer expression in the first.

Walking with a group of breast cancer survivors was fun and I snapped a backup portrait at the Clover Island lighthouse,

in case I didn't get a good walking shot. I liked this one of them chatting along, but nitpickingly wish that they were all in a more photogenic part of their strides:

The cleaner background of Dr. Thomas Rado's examination room won me over despite the cramped space. I got a straightforward portrait of the owner and co-founder of Columbia Basin Hematology & Oncology,

but really liked these two as options for the final photo:

The first has a feeling of defeat, however, and Andy had mentioned how contemplative he found Dr. Rado to be — a quality I saw in my brief portrait session with him. If he had spent his time talking to me about patients he regretted losing or lamenting the endlessly uphill battles he's waged in about 14,000 cases since 1995, then the first might fit. I just hope the one we ran didn't come off as too cheesy.

We met Federico Alvarado of Mesa outside Kennewick General Hospital before an appointment. I shot a desperation fallback photo I really hoped I wouldn't have to use,

and tried mixing it up with a tight portrait with really shallow depth of field:

The focus is ever-so-slightly off on his eyebrows, though, so we moved by a tree and Andy played reflector holder for this shot:

The lighting also matches up better with a lot of the other portraits.

While that common thread worked fine for the mood of a lot of these stories, there were other techniques I wanted to try. Dennis DeFord's triple cancer defeat that's been followed by his wife's diagnosis of Alzheimer's was a good candidate for a reflection portrait and his dining room window faced his wife Doris' garden — a chore of love he would also have to tend to.

The reflections weren't ideal, however. The lack of a plain dark expanse reflected on the right of the window meant I'd have to work to make Dennis recognizable:

Photographing from the other side yielded a pretty cool shot,

but lacks that garden metaphor I wanted. Instead, I leaned in close to the window, using my camera and hand to create a shaded area for Dennis' face:

As you can see, there were some issues with my strobe causing funky reflections at certain angles, so I shot a lot, adjusting in small increments. Luckily, Dennis' long gaze worked well for the shot and he was a very easy subject to work with. I tend to talk a lot to subjects while photographing them, but being outside didn't let that happen. It was a good reminder to let quiet work for me.

Doris happened to head out to the garden while we were shooting and here's the frame we ran:

I cropped it in a bit to get rid of the bright spots of the other dining room window, which I should have asked them to draw the blinds on. I like how the dining room table fades with the lawn and the less recognizable image of his wife fits the tragic story as well.

The safe photo was of him and his dog since his wife didn't want to be photographed, so I'm glad I was able to make my original idea work:

The real treats from working on this series was getting a chance to revisit some subjects from the past. First was Laurel Piippo, whom I first met nearly three years ago when Michelle Dupler wrote a story about her citizen lobbying efforts:

One of the first things she said to me when we met up this time was, "I went from middle aged to old like ‘Bang!’" Physically, she wasn't kidding. Her movements were much slower and more deliberate than I remembered. Mentally, she was just as sharp, though, and after hearing Andy declare his new favorite quote was from her ("You're not whacking off my breast until after the New Year's Eve party.”), I wanted her portrait to convey her famously funny sass while still striking an appropriate tone for the story.

I started by trying to keep her head against the cleaner background of her front door,

but didn't like how little you could see of that awesome bench she was sitting on. She also talked about how annoyed she was that battling cancer had canceled so many of her trips, so I wanted to work in more of her worldly decor. I like her attitude in this frame,

but it didn't seem playful enough for her. Also, that shiny foil on the poinsettia is distracting. I rotated the plant to try and minimize it before capturing the shot we ran:

We wrapped up the series by checking back in with the Strunks, who celebrated their 67th anniversary on Halloween. I photographed them two years ago for a feature about the unusual anniversary:

Like when I approached Laurel Piippo's portrait, I knew I had to do something a little different. Mary was now wheelchair-bound, so we went with the couch. I wanted the sheer blinds to glow for the background, but exposing for that effect also meant the light inside would show up, adding weird and warm color casts in parts of the frame. Instead of just turning those lights off, I decided to stick a strobe outside to light up the window, allowing for a lower ISO, higher image quality and a potentially cool lighting effect.

Here's an example of what my exposure looked like when the outside strobe didn't pop:

Both were very hard of hearing, so it was a challenge to give them direction. I liked this shot,

but Mary was feeling self-conscious about her broken tooth, so I went with this frame,

which I think shows the same tenderness without feeling so contrived. Both have some unfortunate lens flare, but I don't think it's enough to kill either shot. It is something to be more aware of when shooting toward a light, though, and a sloppy, regrettable mistake.

Working on this series was a challenging joy, and I'm glad Andy came up with the idea (even though he probably regretted the decision a few times during his story-a-day endeavor). I pushed myself to produce portraits worthy of the incredible stories they accompanied. Meeting these people was both humbling and inspirational, and I hope I was able to bring out some of their personality in these photos. You can see the whole series at tricityherald.com/cancer.

Also worth checking out...

Slate.com has an interesting series called "Permanent Record," which features some of the stories behind 395 old report cards in Paul Lukas' collection. I've only scratched the surface of the project, but it's been fun leafing through these glimpses into the early 20th century.

A Milwaukee Journal Sentinel photographer was arrested while covering their local "Occupy" demonstrations. It sounds like there's some tense relations between media and Milwaukee police based on a September arrest of a TV photojournalist.

Check out this cool video by Lukas and Salome Augustin that captures some of the unseen beauty in Afghanistan. It runs a bit too long for my taste, but there are some gorgeous shots in there and the piece feels like a moving photo story instead of a video. (via NW Photojournalism)


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