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Access Denied

Access is a funny thing.

This harsh mistress is constantly blindsiding me with curve balls and wicked googlies. Sometimes this trickery works in my favor, granting me entry to unexpected moments.

Other times, she tantalizes me with the prospect of a quick and easy shoot only to slap me in the face with a cold reminder of who wears the pants in this relationship.

Earlier this year, we ran a story about how new lead-testing laws in the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act might impact second-hand stores that sell products with plastic that are intended for kids. The concern is that retailers would not be able to afford the exorbitant costs of testing every item that was on the list, including furniture, toys and clothing.

For the accompanying photo, I was sent to a secondhand store owned by a woman who was quoted in the story. When I arrived around 11 a.m. on a Tuesday, business was unsurprisingly slow. She was busy on the phone, so I told her I would go set up and to come on back when she was done. I arranged some of the toys in back into a pleasing background for an environmental portrait that would show the range of items this new law would encompass.

When she finished, she came back and asked if I needed anything else. I started suggesting poses and places for her to stand and sit.

She was horrified.

"Wait. You want me in the photo? she asked.

"Uh. Yeah." I thought I had made that clear by saying I'd be arranging the items for a background, but as with any job that you do long enough, it's easy to forget that not everybody knows what you're referencing.

"Why do you need me in the photo?"

"Well," I explained, "you're quoted in the story and we like to be able to put a face to the name. Is there any particular reason you don't want to be photographed?"

She rambled a bit, clearly flustered about something she couldn't or wouldn't articulate. "I just don’t like to be pictured in the newspaper. You know what I mean?"

"Not really," I said. "It’s free publicity."

It'd be a stretch to say that business owners are always excited to be photographed, but after some initial awshucks-style embarrassment, the vast majority play ball.

Since the store was still empty, I tried reiterating my goal of putting her face to her quote in the story.

"Well, you can just take the quote out of the story then."

It was my turn to be horrified. This was uncharted territory for me. A business owner who was so opposed to having her picture taken that she'd pass up on free publicity? I couldn't wrap my head around the concept.

It would have made sense if she was disfigured to the point of making children cry, which would be mind bendingly ironic for an owner of store that caters to parents of young children. Sure, she had a bit of acne, but she was in her late 20’s and in shape.

An elephant woman she was not.

I told her that it was OK; that I would figure something else out. No sense in screwing up the story.

Thankfully, some customers had come in toting cute children, and I snapped this shot:

Although this ended up working better than the run-of-the-mill environmental portrait I had originally planned, the situation was a strange reminder of how tricky access can be. For photojournalists, our interpersonal skills are equally important to our photographic ones. Although I'm far from a veteran, I've been doing this long enough to be comfortable in the vast majority of situations, and, barring a language barrier, can usually convince somebody to allow me to photograph him or her.

I still don't know if I could have done anything different to convince this particular business owner, which makes me feel like a failure — not because I couldn't convince her, but because all I really learned from this situation is something I knew well enough to have already used as a lede for a different blog entry.

Access truly is a funny thing.


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