Oct 042012

How to access to your next Project

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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. 


Jimmy Chin, of National Geographic, shooting some insane slack lining in Yosemite. © Jimmy Chin

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.

Herbert Ponting shooting off of the side of their boat called the Terra Nova in Antarctica with Captain Scott. © Herbert Ponting

“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?

HCB French painter Henri Matisse at his home, Nice, France. © Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos

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.

French painter Henri Matisse at his home, villa Le Reve. © Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos

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.

French painter Henri Matisse at his home, villa Le Reve. © Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos

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.

Internal Monologue

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.

Eric “The Carpenter” from my recent project OnSite. © Adam Marelli

Master Craftsmen

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.

I had the good fortune of visiting one of the last two boat yards where they still make gondolas during my trip/workshop in Venice. Gondolas at the Squero di San Trovaso Venice Italy. © Adam Marelli

Disappearing Masters

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?

Captain Robert Scott in his quarters aboard the Terra Nova. © Herbert Ponting

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.

Claudio has been working at the Squero di San Trovaso since he was fourteen years old. He knows these gondolas inside and out. When he was fastening the brass trim, I asked him what was his favorite part in the entire building process. He said, without question the woodwork. Then he proceeded to walk me through the seven types of woods used in the construction. I live for this kind of interaction because it gives a direct insight to the historic tradition so unique to Venice. © Adam Marelli

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.

I am headed to Japan for the month of October to see why the master craftsmen are an endangered species. © Adam Marelli

Master Craftsmen

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.

If we have to be at a computer, might as well have a nice office. Jimmy Chin taking advantage of Yosemite’s natural photo studio. © Jimmy Chin

Your Work

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.

Herbert Ponting and the Terra Nova in Antarctica. © Herbert Ponting.

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   

  9 Responses to “How to access to your next Project”

  1. “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.”

    I am an Hare Krsna, and mostly all my picture all about it, when i am taking picture of the festivals or any Hare Krsna chanting groups in the street i feel confidence taking picture of them, because they are knowing me and i also knowing them. Always happen when we are in the street or beaches for chanting there will be lot of people gathering to see us. When i was taking picture of them (snap and shoot way) some of them will hide their face, shy. But when the approaching is more personal like before taking picture of them give them smile they will allowed them self to be shoot.

    “Adam was also very good at connecting with people, and also used time to actually get to know people, to know their story, show his interest and become friends with them. To actually approach people on this personal level and to connect with them and then take their picture is an amazing quality which I some day hope that I can develop myself.” Børge Indergaard said this about you in his blog after he attended your workshop. The personal approaching is really needed in my opinion. With it, all access will automatically we get. This post really a remainder for me, to always approaching people in more personal ways.

    Thank you for posting this great article Adam. It make me more more confidence to make this Hare Krsna chanting in the streets as my photo project And also because this chanting in the street are part of my life. :)

    • Hi Haricharana das,

      Yes, yes…you are on to it. Working within an environment that you understand has tremendous benefits. It gives you a sense of what happens, before it occurs.

      As for Borge, he did experience my approach. The workshops are not for me at all. It is an opportunity for me to share everything I can with the other photographers. Learning has not come without difficulty…but just because it was hard for me, does not mean it should be hard for you. It is a pleasure to pass along information, so that you can jump a few steps ahead.

      Maybe I will see you in a workshop soon.


  2. I love this article. And, I’m a photographer that actually works at South Pole.

  3. Adam, Your perspective on things photographic is always interesting. You’ve gotten me thinking. I am going to apply some of your thoughts to my next project. Thank you pb

  4. Hi Adam,
    great thoughts and very inspiring too

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