Rudderless

Ok, here's a few things. First, a strength I'll actually cop to is being able to make a meaningful image in a very short time involving total strangers in situations which are often tense and intimate. Here's one example:

Recently while on my way to photograph a pet adoption event, I was told to detour to take pictures of a family who only hours earlier had found their son face down in the street outside their home, dead of a gunshot wound. Not only did I have to rush straight to the scene knowing no other information, but the people at the scene weren't yet aware the paper wanted their story. ALSO, I still had to get to the goddamn animal shelter on time.

That's the aunt, brother and mother of the deceased on the couch. Now, these aren't award-winning shots, but I'm using them to backup the idea that I can do this work in less than ideal circumstances. They tell the story of the scene of the family in grief, and checking the timestamp on the photos shows that only 11 minutes passed from when I knocked on their front door, cold turkey, to when I left to take pictures of puppies and kittens. Come in, somehow ingratiate yourself with these people in their own home, try to make an honest image that tells the emotional story and gives a sense of place without interfering or sensationalizing. The crime scene tape was just an extra detail shot I grabbed on my way back to the car. You're supposed to cover the scene of the crime, but it was all cleared away. The cops don't take the tape with them though. So this time it was stuffed in a bag of leaves already on the curb. Refuse of the dead. Here's the puppy kitten shit:

Anyway, there are many others. I won't make you sit through a slideshow of stuff. I'm just saying (not bragging, but I don't know how to avoid talking about myself in this situation) that whether I'm photographing the terminally ill, religious services or funerals, people being arrested, fires, suicide survivors, riots, whatever, I can usually make it work. I can show you more if you want. Of course I can photograph the county fair, football games, and Black Friday bargain hunters too, but so can everyone else.

Now, a common frustration is that what I think makes an interesting and successful image doesn't necessarily align with many journalism outlets' notions of the same thing. They want it shot "straight" which is to say absent any hint of subjectivity or editorializing on the part of the photographer. What ends up happening is the creation of a content aesthetic which is mostly immune to the criticism that it misleads or distorts, but that frequently fails to relate the more subtle emotional reality of the subject. Often (though never overtly stated) the photos are supposed to align with a writer's or editor's preconceived notion about a story that hasn't even happened yet, regardless of what actually occurs during the assignment. Sometimes it's even more inexplicable and the editor just seems obsessed with the obvious, the banal, the trite.

Here are some quick examples:

A while ago I was asked to take some pictures for a story about what low-income families do during holiday breaks from school, especially the kids. I was told to go focus on one family's holiday meal, but to also cover other people in the community generally. (I was really excited until I learned that I had to shoot it that afternoon for publication the next day. This is the kind of story I could have spent days on. I get two hours.) Anyway, I drove to a low-income part of town and started looking for kids. I got lucky. In this neighborhood everyone was going to gather up their friends for an evening game of basketball. I asked some of the kids if I could tag along and they said sure. It got pretty cool pretty quickly. There was the initial part of everyone going around door-to-door to round up their buds. Then, using the "Cuts," the back alleys, abandoned lots, etc., to walk a more or less straight line to the court rather than taking the long way around on the street. By the time they started playing ball, I had enough images for a small online gallery, and it was time to leave and go file for my ridiculous deadline. Here are a few that I like which never got published...

...and here's what makes it to press:

They like it 'cause it's pretty, but it has no feeling. You don't get a sense of who these kids are. It would have made a decent addition to a greater gallery, but in my opinion it's weak as a stand-alone. And now there was no chance to re-visit these kids, because the next day it's on to more hard deadlines for other assignments...

Also, I knew there was no way they were gonna run that portrait of the foursome standing on the court. That's interfering. It's a total lie though to act like my presence has no effect on what's going on. Better, I think, to be up front about it, and take a nice portrait. It helps give gravity to the subject, makes them more real, whereas the silhouetted shot just further reinforces the reading audience's preconceived notions of anonymous poor black boys. Plus, once they're used to my presence, more "honest" opportunities are likely to present themselves as they pay attention to the photographer less and less.

Here's another. A couple years ago the New York Times asked me to shoot a gallery on the construction of the Bass Pro Pyramid. In the assignment they said to make sure I included pictures that helped explain the structure's impact on the surrounding "social ecosystem" as well as shots describing the "who" and "what" of the actual renovation. I submitted dozens of images including these which I really like and which never saw publication:

I really like the shot of the window cleaner rappelling down the side, and of the two confused-looking managers at the construction site. I think the idea of folks from different walks-of-life just going on about their business, oblivious to the surreal landmark on the horizon is worth exploring. Part of the story was the oddness and uncertainty surrounding a glass pyramid turned outdoor supply store in the middle of a mixed income neighborhood. You can see the straight vanilla photos the Times chose to publish by clicking here. I get really bummed by these editorial decisions.

I could go on all day about this, but here are two more, quickly. I won't give you tons, just an example of the ones I liked and the ones that made it to print:

Had to shoot a story about the dwindling numbers of professional clowns, how its ranks are aging and dying off. Went to the Al-Chymia Shrine Circus (again, for only an hour or so of course) to tell the story. Editors ask that you rank your images in order of preference. Topping my list were shots like this:

Toastmaster

Toastmaster

They chose to run shit like this:

Dino

Dino

Another: Memphis finally got an IKEA store. I had to photograph the grand opening. It's such a surreal space, I tried to get images that reflected that into the paper with shots like this:

Jaylen Roach carries armfuls of stacking chairs as one of the first shoppers inside home furnishing retailer IKEA's new Memphis store during an event marking its grand opening.

Jaylen Roach carries armfuls of stacking chairs as one of the first shoppers inside home furnishing retailer IKEA's new Memphis store during an event marking its grand opening.

When they just wanted this drivel:

Caleb Jones, from left, Daniel Dawidow, and Jonathan Baldelli, wait in line to enter IKEA during an event marking the grand opening of the home furnishing retailer's new Memphis store. For being among the first 100 customers in line, the trio will each receive a free couch from IKEA, having spent days camped out in front of the store ahead of the grand opening.

Caleb Jones, from left, Daniel Dawidow, and Jonathan Baldelli, wait in line to enter IKEA during an event marking the grand opening of the home furnishing retailer's new Memphis store. For being among the first 100 customers in line, the trio will each receive a free couch from IKEA, having spent days camped out in front of the store ahead of the grand opening.

Enough whining, Brandon. What are you shooting that you like? Well, for years now the pictures that I've enjoyed the most are ones that I've made incidentally, usually while headed to or from another assignment, or just waiting around. NYT asked me to go to Arkansas and shoot some pictures of people who will likely lose healthcare coverage if the Republicans pull back Medicaid expansion in the states. While driving back and forth to Little Rock, I took these:

I like them as a group. I don't know if they're worth a damn or if they say anything, but they feel good to me. I was really charged while making them and pleased with the feeling of them afterward.

click to expand

I got hired to shoot the art for a huge meeting of non-profits, universities, government, stakeholders, companies, etc. for something called the "Blight Charter Summit" to try to bring together the disparate resources and organizations in Memphis under a single vision for fighting blight in the city. I had to go to a couple of neighborhoods, especially one that surrounds an abandoned school. Of course, the internet is awash in "Blight Porn." Everyone with a DSLR and a Flickr page trots up to Detroit to stand in front of the formerly great houses that are now falling in on themselves. I can't say I didn't do the same thing, but I tried to bring some thoughtfulness to the project. Not just to show off the romantic allure of crumbling bricks, but the feel of it all. Just paying attention to the light goes a long way:

So I really have no idea what to do, but I think what might work for Big B would be to combine three parts:

  1. Visual reportage of the style I prefer, like the ones that got cut from the Pyramid, Rodeo Clowns, IKEA, or "Kids in the Cut" stories. Potentially in sensitive situations, with "marginalized" subjects (I hate that word).
  2. Formal-ish portraits (see below) which I think lend feeling and a sense of importance to the subjects.
  3. Stage-setting environmental shots to give an emotional sense of place, like the ones I've taken while driving to other assignments or the pictures for the Blight Charter.

I already do all three, they just never go together because:

  • I never have the time during a typical assignment needed to capture the beautiful (I think, anyway) environmental shots.
  • Reportage claims to want "interesting" photos, but just as often they want it to be so hyper-objective that in my opinion it actually loses real meaning, rather than maintaining truth. So my mind's eye gets trained to ignore what's interesting and focus on some banal fantasy of objectivity.
  • The subjects for portrait assignments are almost always "important" people - business leaders, politicians, sports figures, heads of non-profits, any fucking doctor, etc. "Regular" folks don't get represented with an assignment just to go and make a nice portrait of them.

Here are some portraits I've taken, new and old, that I think show what might work well when combined with the other types of images:

So, maybe I combine those three; reportage, portraits, environmental scene. Maybe that's the template for shooting a project? Almost all of these images have been cranked out either in a huge rush, or by incidental accident. Surely if I could just spend some time on something, I could create even better shit.

Is this photojournalism, documentary, fine art, a combination? Who ever sees it? How would/could it be presented? Who gives a shit in the first place? How the hell can I settle on subject(s)? How can I justify the investment in time? Am I just jerking off? Are these fucking pictures worth looking at? I'm not at all convinced.

Lastly, here, in random order, are some pictures that you may not have seen that I took and that I like. I would like to make more shit like this, and have someone see it somehow, and maybe even make a dollar and a cent in the process. Thanks for looking: