Composition Posts

The Photographer’s Story: Worthy Subjects

Since you’re going to invest time and effort, you naturally want to be sure that the subject is worth it. On a professional level, finding the subjects is at the heart of being an editor, but even when it’s done for your own shooting pleasure it needs some serious thought. Photography of all kinds has always been caught up in the need to be different, better, original. There’s so much of it, and so many people shooting, that it’s highly competitive creatively. More, I think, than other creative forms. The same applies to picture stories, as evidenced by the media preoccupation with exclusives. There are basically two ways to go: Find a subject that no one else has done (or is remembered to have done); or do a really eye-opening shoot on a subject that has been done before, and make it better.

The Birds. Brown-rumped swiftlets on their nests 500 feet high in the Gomantong caves.

There are even variations on the search for originality. The most reliably original is a new event or invention. Something that really has not happened before. In today’s media aware world, there’s no shortage of these, but only some of them are sufficiently important or interesting to be worth bothering with. Magazines, newspapers, and television like them when they’re good, because they can sometimes be made into exclusives (with some negotiation) and give the publication or channel a competitive advantage.

Another kind of original is a subject discovered outside the range of the audience’s experience. For decades, foreign travel has been a useful source, from “strange” people (“giraffe-necked women”) to lost ruins. The balance here is always between how strange the subject is, and its distance from the audience’s general interest. It helps if the readers or viewers have an awareness of that area of the world and a basic curiosity. I experienced this in a positive way in the 1980s, when long-haul mass tourism to Asia was just beginning to grow. I had already started shooting regularly in Thailand, but at the beginning of the decade it was difficult to get magazines interested in any but the most general stories. The public simply didn’t have much awareness of Thailand and Southeast Asia, but as tourism grew, the destinations became more relevant, and more specific stories became saleable, such as the celebrations for the Bangkok Bicentennial, the plight of Thai elephants, and the annual Rocket Festival. There are two thresholds: The first one crossed by the audience is the stage of being prepared to be interested, and the second, later, is the stage of losing interest because the subject is so familiar and no longer has rarity value. This happened, as an example, with the Cambodian temples at Angkor over a period of just two decades.

The Collectors. Thai collectors leaving their fishing village at dawn on Koh Phi Phi for the cave on a nearby island.

The next line of attack is a new twist, finding a different angle of interpretation on a well-known subject. This, indeed, is part of the exercise I just mentioned, on Angkor. You can attempt to do this with anything at all, but the difficulty lies in how different and useful the new angle is. The risk is making the subject seem smaller by approaching it from a more niche point of view, although there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with small. Then there are subjects that are so big that they have hardly been tackled as one story. An example would be a photo essay on water—an increasingly timely subject, but one that calls for deft organization to cover it meaningfully. Of course, the very fact that a wide-ranging subject has rarely been done should be a warning. You could even call these portmanteau subjects, ones that rely on assembling what would ordinarily be thought of as several stories in their own right.

One of the easiest ways into shooting a story is to find first an inherently interesting subject. It sounds obvious enough, but it takes some effort and imagination in the planning stage. It does not invalidate the opposite approach—taking a mundane subject and using skill and imagination in shooting. You could justifiably argue that the result, if you succeed, is even more impressive. Nevertheless, an unusual subject that few, if any, other photographers have tackled, is a prize in its own right. Here is one. The idea came from the magazine, and had already been written, so for me it was more of a gift than a prize. Bird’s nest soup is one of those unusual foods which are more about idea and myth rather than nutrition or taste (the nests have no nutritional value and no taste, which has to be added in the cooking). This alone would be just fairly interesting as a story, but what gives it a full-on appeal for photography is that the effort needed to collect the nests, and the exotic locations, are extreme. It’s something of an adventure story.

Excerpt from The Photographer’s Story by Michael Freeman © 2012 Taylor & Francis Group. All Rights Reserved.

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