I was helping a photographer develop some ideas for covering a major upcoming event and as is often the case, the course of the conversation led us to ideas that we couldn’t have predicted at the beginning.
A typical approach is to make pictures of the top layer, the so called news out of massive events, whether they’re scheduled, such as a political convention, or not scheduled, such as the Haiti earthquake. Chances are that there will be a bunch of other photographers next to you when you’re making these top layer pictures and your pictures won’t be much different from the rest.
If you only make photographs of that layer and you’re happy with that, stop reading now. But if you’ve left such an event feeling like you could have done more, here are some thoughts about how to approach it differently the next time.
Going into an event your goal should be to tell stories, not just to capture the news moments, really tell a story. Make a movie with still pictures. The expectation is that your pictures capture an audience in the same way that a good movie keeps people in their seats. There should be a narrative, scene setters, character development, tension then release, drama.
It seems obvious but few people do this.
A starting point is to break the event into its parts. Think about what qualitative and informational aspects there are and what broad strokes you can deal with in choosing what stories to tell. In other words, where are the drama points and how do you enter them?
I suggested to the photographer I was working with that he go into the event with four story ideas in mind. And we thought of four possibilities that come from foreseeable aspects of the event. Ideally, he’ll trump those ideas once in place but at least going in he has a plan derived from concepts.
One idea is an essay that he can build through the event. Make pictures of one aspect of the event that build on each other as the days pass. That’s the seed planting idea. Once you plant an idea for a certain layer of an event in your head, or clue in your eye to seeing a certain layer you’ll see things you wouldn’t have otherwise. The photos become glimpses of the event that together say a lot about one thing. (The best ideas always have a yin and yang to them - this one is small thing that can say something big.)
Another idea is to tell the story of one person who is caught up by or intimately involved in the event. Think beyond the single image, stick with the subject through the ebb and flow of their involvement. In Haiti, it could be fascinating to see one family dealing with the aftermath, for instance. Not just for a day, but for weeks. That’s a movie. You can also do place-based stories. In Haiti, follow the story of one building and all the lives its loss touched, for instance.
Succeeding at this type of story telling/event coverage is among the things that separates the average photographer from the exceptional. I’ve just scratched the surface of an approach to success here.