When There's No Time for a Group Photo

Technology was supposed to make life easier. Turn on the faucet and boom. Water. Pop a frozen meal in the microwave and you've got dinner without the wait. Even the dreaded DMV visit has been reduced to minutes thanks to the internet. There's almost nothing that can't be done quickly as long as you have the right technology. Yet still, we lead busy lives. 

Ironically, we've taken this (relatively) new concept of free time and used it to create more work for ourselves. The invention of the assembly line didn't result in workers going home early, but in higher, more efficient production rates for Ford. We use our spare time to schedule more meetings, get more organized, do more. And this isn't necessarily a bad thing. People need to work, to be productive, in order to feel meaningful. It's natural to want to fill our time this way.

Recently, I was tasked with taking a group shot of several local politicians for Women's History Month for Rapid Growth Media. Correct me if I'm wrong, but this would be the first ever professional group shot celebrating women politicians in Grand Rapids. It felt a momentous occasion, and I was excited for the project.

But gathering the women together, even for just one photo, was quite a challenge. A little too much so. After several failed Doodles, I decided to forgo the traditional group shot and use Photoshop magic to place all these women in the same place at the same time. The subjects filtered in throughout the day, and I photographed them as they had time. It took very specific posturing and placement in order to make the final photo look natural. I used layers to create a composite image and, withholding this blog, no one would ever know the difference.

Technology is a complicated beast. In freeing up our time, it actually gives us more work. Sometimes it doesn't actually make anything easier. But sometimes it does. 

Collaborating Constructively with a Marketing Team

Marketing campaigns usually involve a team of people working toward the common goal of crafting a body of work to perfectly display their message. Like the dreaded group projects in grade school, these collaborations often lead to headaches if your team doesn’t communicate and cooperate well. A great team makes the difference in securing a beautiful end piece.

Aquinas College is a much-loved client who has the collaboration thing figured out. Their creative director has a great understanding of photography and how to use it along with design to build a narrative. The creative director also participates on set, providing helpful feedback to me and managing “branding and messaging goals” so that I can focus closer on the photograph. This is a client I enjoy working with.

Recently, we worked on a direct mail fundraising campaign for the College Alumni Foundation. The design concept was a large, foldable tactile flier. It was one large page broken up into four panes with four folds, each displaying a different photo with a narrative of religion, environmentalism, service, and learning relative to a single subject. The goal was to show the kinds of values Aquinas instills in its students, values shared by the Aquinas community.

In the planning stages of this project, we decided it was important for the lifestyle photos to be as sincere as possible. We didn’t want to take any shortcuts. This meant shooting real students interacting in their normal environments on campus, using people who already had a relationship with the college and the space. I particularly wanted to make sure the shoot wasn’t rushed, that we took the time to work the location and find the best angles, to allow the models to relax and open up in their portraits. There is always time to do something badly, and rarely enough time to do something great.

Frequently when shooting scenes for marketing campaigns, there’s a lot of pressure to get the job done as quickly as possible. Every minute means more money spent. But taking the time is worth it if it allows a model to “find themselves” in front of the camera. An image is always best when the subject is fully present in it. In many ways this is the litmus test for authenticity, whether we look at a photograph and believe that the subject is present and engaged in the image. Whether it feels true, or real.

I wanted to slow down this shoot to allow time to build my relationship with the subjects. As a photographer, it’s immensely important to earn their trust. And for trust to be real, it must be earned. If you have to coerce a subject to adjust their body a certain way or take on a different tone or attitude, the shoot will become forced and the photos will lose emotional depth. Although they might still turn out well, they’ll only reflect the photographer’s representation of the subject. The subject’s own identity will be lost. However, once trust is earned, the subject will become more engaged, readily taking on suggestions and bringing their own unique self to the image.

It’s important for photography to work in close harmony with design. Collaborating with a Creative Director makes building these kinds of images easier, since they bridge with the design process. Our planning and careful timing for this shoot really paid off. It’s a meaningful final piece that represents the subjects, their beliefs, and Aquinas College itself in a very real way.


A Risk Worth Taking

Successful business people are almost always more colorful than they let on. I recently met Bjorn Green, the new CEO of TowerPinkster, while photographing some of their staff for a magazine piece. TowerPinkster is an architectural and engineering firm in Grand Rapids, with Bjorn recently taking on the role of CEO last year. He’s a marvelously interesting person. When I learned he’d done some child modeling for Solo Cups many years ago, I knew I could talk him into doing something a little riskier for the shoot.

Rather than posing him in front of an architectural background or on a staircase (as is common with portraits of architects), I had him lie down on top of piles and piles of blueprints and photographed him from above. It’s an odd concept, and he had to really trust me with it. It was creative, different, far from safe.

The most difficult bit of this project was how little time we had to get the shot. A CEO’s time is very valuable, and they generally don’t have much to spare. With our short window, it was crucial that we spend a lot of time setting up, placing the blueprints just so, and taking test shots, ensuring everything was ready before he arrived. I had to have a very clear, precise vision of the shot I wanted. I couldn’t waste time experimenting with ideas that wouldn’t end up being used.

I also was able to get some fun shots of the TowerPinkster interns. They have a pretty laid back culture, so we wanted to play with that and reflect that in the photos. We encouraged the interns to be spontaneous and impulsive in front of the camera. They posed with props as we loosened the atmosphere and tried to get them to laugh on camera. Photos are always more genuine when the model is completely engaged. These photos turned out much more interesting to the eye than if we had taken typical headshots with the model standing and smiling.

Going outside the box is always risky. It takes a willing participant and a great deal of trust. There’s a definite correlation between risk and reward. Trying out an atypical idea is never a safe bet, but there’s an opportunity to get truly unique and alluring photos.

Passing on a Legacy

It's kind of surprising how many great fighters are from Grand Rapids. The entire Mayweather clan, the Tuckers, the Mathises. Who would've thought our little town was so good at breeding boxers? There's a family tie involved, a fatherly need to pass on one's own knowledge and love of the sport. To continue the legacy. "He comes from a fighting family" is a common phrase, a descriptor that denotes an athlete comes from a "special bloodline", born to box. Yet, an equally talented father-son duo is hard to find in boxing.

Such is not the case with the Buster Mathis legacy. While father fought Ali, Frazier, and qualified for the 1964 Olympics, son boasts a 21-2 record, a USBA heavyweight belt, and defeating Billups, Fortune, and Dixon. Now Buster owns the Bokssport gym, teaching boxing and nutrition coaching. His goal is to help others achieve self empowerment through boxing. He says it best on his website, "when life hits you, bring it to the ring".


Reaching Higher Grounds

Working among coffee farmers in Mexico on a post-grad internship, Chris Treter made a life-altering decision. Fusing the ideas of selling coffee and improving conditions for poverty-stricken communities, he went back to the states and took steps to open his own coffee shop. Founded on the motto "People, Planet, Profit", Higher Grounds in Traverse City offers high quality coffee grown by small scale farmers from three different continents. The coffee farmers Chris met on his internship were only able to sell their coffee in small, local markets. By partnering with Chris, they suddenly had a link to a much bigger market and the opportunity to sell much more coffee.

In 2016, Higher Grounds received B Corp certification, meaning they met the non profit's rigorous standards of social and environmental responsibility. It's about transparency, accountability. It sets rules and standards in place to ensure the mission doesn't end with the entrepreneur. All the employees in the company take part in it. B Corp certification is going to be increasingly important in the changing market. Consumers, particularly millennials, are demanding more sustainability and social responsibility from the companies they buy from. There's a push to do more, to give back. 

Chris Treter credits community engagement as the main reason for his brand's success. It's the reason the company was started and the driving factor behind the pursuit for B Corp certification. Building better communities by putting people first.