This past January, I got an assignment to shoot 3 eco-activists for a magazine feature story. As is usually the case, we were shooting for an issue that would appear on newsstands several months later, in this case April. The portraits needed to be environmental to tell the story, but since the issue would appear in the spring, the art director’s concern was that they couldn’t look as if they were shot in the winter. On top of this were the usual challenges; one subject never answered the phone when I called and had no answering machine, one was on vacation until the day before my deadline and the last was in his 90’s and his failing health limited his ability to travel.
The first shoot I was able to schedule was Russell Peterson, former governor of Delaware, now in his 90’s. After speaking with Russ, we decided to shoot on his property which was a couple of acres and included a pond. His age restricted his ability to travel, and I decided that to ask him to hike out to a wildlife preserve was out of the question. While scouting his property I found an old adirondack chair near his pond and worked out an angle that would give me some evergreen trees and warm sunlight in the background. I used a wall to conceal most of the leaf covered foreground and and depth of field to disguise the bare branches that I couldn’t crop out. It took some effort for him to get to the location, and even to get into the chair because of it’s low profile, but he was a good sport and we got a great shot. The ultimate compliment came after the shot ran when Russell’s wife June contacted me to ask for a copy of the image for their home.
Next was Joan Deaver, a resident and protector of Rehoboth Beach. After trying the original contact number to no avail, I was able to get a secondary number from the magazine. Once I managed to get in touch with her we worked out a time to meet at the beach near her home. We did some safe shots at the entrance to the beach as a warm up, and then I asked her if she would be willing to take a walk out to the surf. She was game, so we did another series of shots at the water’s edge that blew the safe shots away. We were fortunate to get a blue sky that day, and along with Joan’s willingness to go without an overcoat in the 40 degree weather we were able to get a shot that really conveyed a sense of her strength and dedication to protecting the natural assets in the area, and one that felt like April as well.
Finally came Alan Muller. Alan was a quiet guy with an outlook of realistic pessimism that comes from years of tilting at windmills over environmental issues. You get the impression on meeting him that he cares deeply about his causes and maybe not enough about himself. We were down to the wire on our deadline and he had just spent 2 days driving home from the midwest. We ended up with cloudy skies that day, but the final image matches my impression of Alan perfectly.
One of the things I try to do on any assignment is to understand my subject, both from the standpoint of who they are and, if possible, how they are being portrayed in the accompanying article. I’ve known photographers who will just show up and take a shot, using the same basic ideas no matter who the subject is – but that’s not my way. I try to conduct a mini-interview while setting up and taking the pictures so I can get to know them as a person and convey a sense of their personality in the final image. Most of the people I photograph editorially aren’t used to being in front of a camera, and I like the challenge of gaining their trust and helping them feel comfortable. Listening is key. People will only open up if they sense you are really listening to them. I find that getting people to talk about something they are passionate about puts them at ease and that passion comes through in the final shot.
See an online version of the article here.