Notes from the VisCom Classroom: Overcoming Shyness in Photographing People

Classes at the University of South Carolina, where I am an instructor, began on Aug. 23. As usual, I made time during the first class session to find out about my students, their interests and goals, and particularly the ways they think about photographs and photography. This semester, I am teaching two courses: J337, Photovisual Communications; and J537, Advanced Photovisual Communications. In J337, most of the students are beginning photographers with point-and-shoot digital cameras. In J537, all the students have had photography and videography experience (including J337) and many are getting ready to graduate soon.

This posting will cover what I learned from the advanced students; the next posting will cover the things my beginning students taught me.

Many of the advanced students said they wanted to improve their people-photography skills. I was pleased to hear this, because I consider myself primarily a people photographer, based on my training in photojournalism. As I discussed this goal with the students, I realized that photographing people — which for most photojournalists is second-nature — is perhaps one of the most difficult things we ask our students to do.

Walking up to someone you don’t know and seeking permission to make photographs of them is hard. Students cope with this difficulty in various ways. A few turn away from photographing people altogether and concentrate on inanimate objects — not really a viable option for photojournalists and most other visual-communication professionals. Some overcome the hurdle easily, either because they are personally outgoing or because they are risk-takers. Most students, however, when asked to photograph people, either photograph their friends or sneak photographs of strangers using a long lens or a concealed camera position.

One of my goals for the advanced course this semester is to help students build a repertoire of strategies they can use when photographing people. First, I’ll suggest that they find people already engaged in an activity that lends itself to making pictures. This can be as simple as a couple of bicycle riders taking a break at a coffee shop, or a family enjoying a day at the zoo. In situations like these, students have the perfect introduction: “I’m a USC student and my photography instructor gave us an assignment to photograph people relaxing and enjoying themselves.” These types of situations should be, and usually are, nonthreatening, for both the student and the subjects.

Second, as students practice the art of photographing strangers, they will gain confidence and come to realize what many of us in the profession already know: most people are flattered when you show an interest in their lives and want to make pictures of them. Of course, there will always be a few people, for whatever reason, who do not want to be photographed. Students need to be taught always to respect those people’s wishes, and not to argue or try sneaking photographs — that kind of unethical behavior reflects badly on the entire profession.

I’ll share with my students the following process I use: When I see people engaged in an activity I want to photograph, assuming they are in a public place, I usually start shooting unobtrusively, but without trying to conceal myself. This ensures that I capture the activity unaltered by the presence of a camera. I then move closer, making eye contact, smiling, and indicating by words or gestures that they should ignore me and keep doing what they were doing. Finally, I introduce myself, explain what I am doing — whether it’s assignment or stock shooting — and ask if they would sign a model release. Of course, I also offer to send (and actually do send) them an e-mail with a few images attached — digital has made our lives so much easier in this regard!

Finally, students need to be taught the art of posing people, whether professional models or strangers on the street. Of course, in a news situation, the photographer should never try to pose or otherwise arrange the shot. But when making environmental portraits, feature photographs, or images for advertising or public relations, students need to learn how to arrange the models, props, foreground, and background to tell the story they are trying to tell. The snapshot mentality is hard to overcome, especially if the students have long been at the mercy of their point-and-shoot cameras. This is where the value of critiques and grading comes in.

If my goal as an instructor is to build student skills step by step, I need to pay particular attention to the following: whether the students are getting more comfortable photographing people as the semester progresses; whether their photographs are improving; and whether they are making significant progress toward meeting the main goal of the course, which is to create a body of portfolio-quality images. These are exciting challenges for both the students and their instructor, but I am sure we can meet them by continuing to learn from one another.

[tags]photography tips, shyness, photography instruction[/tags]

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