How to access to your next Project
Have you ever looked at a
photography series and thought,
“How did the photographer get
access to that scene?” Access
is one of the key components
to a successful project. But
gaining access is not always
easy. Lets look at a few different
ways to approach your next project.
How can you shoot like National Geographic
Have you ever picked up a magazine and wondered how the photographer got that shot? Whether it was taken in remote monastery or some far off island that hardly appears on any map, photographer make a point to sniff out the far corners of the globe. There is an unspoken competition between photographers to bring back a picture that no one has seen before. It is part of the spirit that photographers share with explorers.
Before we pack up our sled dogs and head to the South Pole, there are a number of lessons we can learn without getting up from the computer. By understanding some techniques for “Gaining Access” we will understand how and why photographers come home with outstanding images. In many cases it has nothing to do with credentials or resume. Gaining access to your next photography project has more to do with your own personal background than any external factor.
“I don’t want my picture taken”
As photographers we have to deal with the reality that many people do not want to be photographed. Unlike the endless stream of knuckleheads fighting for a spot on reality television, there are just as many people who want to avoid the spot light. They are camera shy, fame weary, and prefer to stick to their own work. But what if you find them really interesting? How can you be given permission to photograph a camera shy person?
Lessons from our Elders
In the 1960’s the future founder of Thames & Hudson press wanted Cartier-Bresson to make a series of portraits of living artists. Inside of this loosely outlined assignment, Cartier-Bresson was supposed to take a portrait of Henri Matisse. As a young photographer and painter, Cartier-Bresson had a tremendous admiration for Matisse. He felt dwarfed by the painter, in age and professional success. Who wouldn’t? Matisse, who was thirty nine years older than Cartier-Bresson, was well established artist in the prime of his career.
A little publicized fact about Cartier-Bresson’s portraits of Matisse was that he went to Matisse’s studio for 4 months before he snapped a single picture! He wanted to observe the rhythm of the artist in his natural habitat. If he was going to take a successful portrait, he would need a deep understanding of the painters studio to distill a moment which was specific to Matisse.
Eventually Cartier-Bresson did make a masterpiece of Matisse and his pigeons. In my opinion, it is one of the finest photographic portraits ever made. The image of Matisse clutching a pigeon, while the other play on the cage has become an iconic image of the painter at work. But this was all possible for two reasons. First, Cartier-Bresson spent a huge amount of time getting to know Matisse and also secondly, as a painting student he was familiar with the methods of a artist. These two points are something that I we should all consider before asking for access.
Before I ever take make a body of images, particularly of an artist or craftsman, I ask myself the following questions.
Why would someone want their picture taken?
What can I offer as a thank you for the access?
Why would they allow me in their space?
How big of a disturbance will I be?
Do I know anything about their craft?
If I can’t answer at least three of these questions, I will have a serious problem on my hands.
Some of you know that my background is a combination of art, photography, and construction. Above all I consider myself an artist, but when I left art school equipped with a fancy degree, a small body of work and some art theory, I was confronted with some hard facts. I was all theory and no practice.
I did not know how to build like a professional. Architecture was an interest though I could not design like an architect and nor could I make art like a real artist. I was a well educated, inexperienced tadpole with very little to offer the world through my lens.
This led me to go out and find some experience. When I made the decision to enter construction it was as an experiment. I still remember stepping off of the side walk on 9th street in the east village thinking, “What if I became a contractor?” This was a long way from building decks in New Jersey or doing service work. But ten years later, I was running millions of dollars of construction and building some of the most expensive homes at the New York City’s exclusive addresses (740 Park Ave, 15 Central Park West, The Beresford ect.)
Many people might think that a photographer who says “I need 4 months for that portrait,” would be insane. But when we look at the outcome of Cartier-Bresson’s work, I dont think anyone would argue it was a waste of time. The combination of experience and patience led to that portrait. Cartier-Bresson’s four months in Matisse’s studio sounds short compared to the decade I put in working in construction, though I am not complaining. But the common theme is that experience needs time to build up. What I got out of construction was a lifetime of project options that are only just now coming together.
Builders, craftsmen, artisans, and artists can be a shy bunch. Their reasons vary from the liability of being on a construction site to the risk of revealing their studio secrets, but one way or another, they are not the easiest lot to photograph. So how do I gain access to areas that are otherwise off limits? I have dedicated part of my life to a sincere interest in carrying on their tradition and lending exposure to many crafts which are in danger of dying out. It doesn’t hurt that when they hear about my building background they are no longer worried about me getting hurt on the job. I approach these projects as a builder first and a photographer second. Why put photography in the back seat?
Relate to People
If you are a doctor, you should have an easier time shooting a series on an operating room. Think of it this way. As a practicing doctor you already know:
How an operating room works
A friend, colleague, or associate who can give you access
How the flow of surgery
Where to position yourself in a scene
And all the ups and downs that occur in an operating room
Just think about how much a photographer would need to learn to even approach the topic with any real depth. The same would go true for someone who was a boxer. We have seen lots of photographs from boxing gyms across the globe. Whether its an outdoor gym in Cuba, a grimy gym in Brooklyn, or a kickboxing arena in Thailand…photographers have been fascinated with the “fighting lifestyle.” But just imagine, if you are an actual boxer, you know what will happen in a gym before it happens. These are one of the perks of gaining life experience before becoming a photographer.
You can apply your previous work life to your photography in a way that is truly unique to your personal vision. When young photographers ask me what they should be photographing I tell them to get a job in the field they want to photograph. They often don’t understand this statement. If you want to take pictures at the South Pole find a way to work there. It will give you a level of insight that is unparalleled by anyone else.
Now I am not recommending that you spend ten years working in construction like I did, that was a huge investment. I learned a lot, but I would not like to wish a decade of delayed gratification on anyone. But if you want to photograph steel workers, spend a few months in a steel yard first. When you understand what everyone is doing, the opportunities for images will grow exponentially. Otherwise the photographer is just this passive observer waiting for the next interesting thing to occur. Eventually most people are flattered that someone is taking an interest in their work.
An Endangered Species
[ J A P A N ]
On Friday I am leaving for the month to Japan. It will be my first time traveling there and I can’t wait. My fascination with Japanese culture started in kindergarten. The school had a program where each year the kids would study a single country. For my two years, we studied Japan and Mexico. Ever since then I have worked my way through many of the stereotypical interests (like ninjas, what kid does like ninjas?) to the more esoteric ones like tea culture and zen buddhism.
In many ways, I feel like this project chose me, not the other way around. My access to the workshops of carpenters, the temple of a Zen monk, and the storage houses of tear farmers did not come from having an assignment (though I will be shooting it for Origin Magazine). One of the reasons why I am being given access to these very small operations is because prior to taking pictures I have experience in these various settings from wood shops to monasteries. I spent time in a Zen monastery here in the US, so the abbot is comfortable having me work around the monks. It is not the kind of project that you can cram for. Unlike university exams, it is the culmination of years of study, personal interest and seemingly pointless exercises. But put into the context of the finished project, all of the time it took to study these fields is coming together in an interesting way.
The next photography project you do should be a reflection of your sensibilities. If you are an auto mechanic by day, it should come through in your work. For most people, discovering your personal style is a matter of reflection. Style is simply an expression of who you are, where you come from, and the accumulation of personal experiences. If you can distill all of that into a body of images, the results will be astounding.
So the next time you see a National Geographic article on an expedition to a mountain whose name you cannot pronounce, remember that the photographer has probably spent years climbing before they were known as a photographer. The level of authenticity leads to a seamless collection of images. Access is not something you gain, but something you develop. More often than not, you already have the access to your next project is just a matter of realizing what options are available to you.
Talk to you from Japan.
– Adam Marelli