Don’t worry, my first dabble in the world of blogging isn’t as a stressed out employee, unsubtly confessing to committing murder in the workplace. My weapon of choice is loaded with a memory card, not even an ‘extreme’ super fast one – hardly the adrenaline pumping stuff of the next James Bond blockbuster. Nevertheless, it seems merely holding a camera with intent in the workplace can strike fear into almost everyone! It’s amazing how quickly you find yourself being stealthily avoided by even your closest colleagues, as soon as the phrase ‘head shot’ is mentioned. On the plus side, that does make getting to the front of the kettle queue so much easier and quicker!
If you haven’t guessed already, I’m a photographer. Technically, I’m trained as a wildlife photographer but, in the scale of things, really how different is shooting a portrait of a deer to a person? After all, both are wary of being anywhere near you as soon as they detect that the camera in your hand is pointing in their direction. As it turns out, they are quite different!
Little did I expect that I would be squished up against a wall, looking down the viewfinder to witness someone providing an audio commentary as they gradually rotated, as though standing on a Lazy Susan, towards the camera lens. The moment they said, mid-turn, ‘I’ll be with you in a minute’ was when the tears of laughter started to burn my eyes, as I tried to blink them back. Like all good story tellers, I feel I should probably rewind a bit to give some context as to how I ended up in this scenario. You see, this time last year I was happily snapping away capturing pretty pictures of polar bears, butterflies and sunsets, as I trained to become a biological photographer. One day, wisely acknowledging that workplaces are made up humans, not animals, our lecturers decided to give us a quick crash course in portrait photography, in case any future employers wanted to utilise our camera skills for staff head shots. It was almost as though they were telepathic.
Plants can’t talk. Insects can’t talk. Landscapes can’t talk. The beauty of our type of photography is that nature either stays still or does its own thing, regardless of what we want it to do. Either way, us talking to it isn’t going to make a blind bit of difference, so we can spare ourselves the trouble. Humans are a different kettle of fish. They expect you to guide them and sound confident, as you go about trying to give an overall impression that you know what you are doing. Staring at them, hoping that they will fall into the amazing composition you’re busy planning in your head, isn’t really a viable option. At the very least, it would be a very time consuming process, plus it could be mistaken for being a tad rude. When you’re photographing your boss, that’s probably not the best route to go down.
So, I’m at Uni, learning portrait photography. First off, our little huddle of budding photographers all manage to blind one other with over enthusiastic flash gun firing. It’s not that we didn’t know how to set the power, it was more the minor issue that we all had the same brand of transmitters and triggers, communicating on the same channel with one another. The resulting chaos of intermittent paparazzi style flash work unsurprisingly caught the attention of many bemused passing students. That paired with our attempts to be ‘artistic’ by hiding behind trees to avoid having as much of our faces in the photographs as possible, did lead to a few sniggers. I don’t blame them, I would have been laughing too, if it hadn’t been me shiftily lurking behind the tree trunk. I fear the resulting photographs most probably played homage to a 90s’s boyband album cover but I live in hope that the SD card got corrupted somewhere on its way to the computer. I suspect my comrade in arms may think otherwise and decide to enlighten me with their (very well hidden) beauty down the line, probably as a birthday Facebook timeline post. A treat to look forward to.
Humiliation over, we were ushered inside to photograph a drag queen in the studio. Drag queens aren’t exactly shy and reserved, so after a few minutes of us all looking somewhat startled we settled into a relaxed rhythm of requesting poses and expressions. Before long, I was up a ladder happily snapping away as I spontaneously blurted out random dance moves and poses galore, revelling in the chance to encourage randomness. The drag queen was loving it, seizing the opportunity to be expressive and candid. I must admit, it was fun to feel like I was leading a magazine shoot, holding the shutter button down to make that fantastic dud-dud-dud-dud sound. The flash units were popping every few seconds, collecting a stream of shots. This somewhat surreal experience was interrupted though, as I needed to dash off to meet Robin Hood.
That might sound like a rather random thing to do, not to mention arguably impossible. There is a perfectly reasonable explanation though – this was all happening in Nottingham and the legendary Robin Hood is still doing the rounds, bringing in the tourists. Somewhat ironically, he mostly appears for a fee at the castle and surrounds for council sponsored events. We were scheduled to photograph him in all his green finery, complete with bow, arrows and shiny swords. If you’re wondering, no tights were involved – we were all spared that. For some reason, we ended up having to photograph him in our building’s quad. A quad which had one tree in it and a single bush. Now I know we all have to make the best with what we’ve got and everything, but trying to make Robin Hood look like he is stalking through the depths of Sherwood Forest when you only have a single tree trunk, some leaves and a conspicuous red brick wall lurking in the background, is a tall task. So, imagine our shared delight when we looked up to witness an entire lecture’s worth of undergrads lining the windows, with their iphones out, capturing the unique scene unfolding below. I don’t doubt social media lit up that day. We may even have been trending, who knows. I was too busy crawling around the solitary bush, stalking good old Robin as he pretended to fire arrows, to notice. I doubt many people can claim that.
Bearing in mind that this memorable day was pretty much the total of my portrait photography experience to date, let’s return to the present day where I am enthusiastically nodding as I agree to my manager’s request to photograph everyone in the department, for a big display in the reception for VIPs to see.
When you hear someone say ‘portrait photography’, your mind probably skips to an image of a spacious, bright white studio filled with all sorts of high tech kit – lights, diffusers, cables, stands etc Yeah, I didn’t have all of that. I had a tiny meeting room with an enormous network cable cabinet at one end, a few Bowens, a limited selection of diffuser options, a camera with two lens choices and a tripod. This is the reality of photography – half of the skill is getting a setup to work, wherever you are with whatever you have. Some tweaking here and there and I eventually had a setup I was happy with. Everyone had been warned of the impending doom and a pristine schedule was up and awaiting names to be added. This was when the fun began. I call it fun because I enjoyed every minute of it, apart from when I had to venture in front of the lens myself. Much like most photographers, I partly love being behind the camera because it means I’m not in front of it!
I have never stopped to consider psychology much before, but this project was a fascinating introduction to that world. I witnessed people diverting around the building to avoid bumping into me, in case I mentioned their seeming lack of existence (if the blank sign up form was anything to go by). Others were pacing outside the photography room’s door, some were hoping to postpone to another week because they hadn’t been to the hairdresser yet. I wouldn’t be surprised if the large number of annual leave requests wasn’t all for child care during the half term. It is safe to say that all but a few individuals were dreading their moment, much like a child queuing for a booster jab at primary school.
Even more interesting than the eclectic mix of avoidance techniques was undoubtedly the moments when they each stood on the floor marking, lights shining on them, my finger poised over the shutter button. If a wild animal spots me, usual they stop or dash for cover. For the first few seconds I could sense this familiar fight or flight response brewing. A few light-hearted exchanges later and most relaxed into it, realising my role is actually to try and make them look as good as possible. If a photographer’s job was to deliberately provide terrible looking pictures of people, there wouldn’t really be a need for them. Everyone can take a bad photograph, me included. Trust me, I wouldn’t go to the trouble of faffing around with complicated equipment if a bad photograph was my aim. To become a great photographer you make a lot of mistakes, because that is the learning process/nobody likes the know-it-alls who get it all perfect straight away.
I work with these lovely people, they are my friends and comrades, yet when I had the power to capture their face for posterity, a whole medley of reactions appeared. From dashing out of the room for final mirror checks, to expressions similar to that of someone facing a firing squad. Throw in a serial killer glare or two and sprinkle with a generous helping of unpredictable swaying and twitches to adjust clothing and you have a fair impression of what I faced. The great thing about knowing the people you are photographing is the fact that it makes it much easier to make conversation and put them at ease, which brings me to the joy that is laughter. A forced smile, paired with startled eyes, is not a winning combination. Especially when the photographs are going to be used to welcome people to a warm and friendly department of people, who love their jobs. That’s a tough sell by anyone’s standards.
So what do we do? Natural laughter is great because the person’s cheek muscles relax and stop doing that annoying spasm thing they love to do in formal photo situations. Little did I expect that I would be the one enjoying this sensation as I’m struggling to see the camera settings. The blurring of tears in my eyes was rendering my sight all but useless. [Quick tip, it definitely helps increase your success rate if you can see your subject]. It turns out that it is possible to have a truly entertaining and enjoyable experience for both the photographer and the subject. As I stood there, wedged between the tripod and wall, chasing the person’s continually moving eyes with my focus point adjustments, there was nothing left to do but laugh. I doubt I will ever again witness someone, unprompted, slowly turn their head through 90 degrees, the whole time empathically apologising for the delay. It was such a fabulously English response to an awkward situation. So, technically, I did shoot the boss and I really enjoyed it, but by the end so did she. Happy shooting!