Most of the time, photography relies on good relationships. They make the business run smoother and ease the shooting. In some areas of photography, smooth jobs are not the best, though.
The Better the Connections, the Better the Business
Running photography as a business needs good relationships. Especially if you don’t own a prominent studio in a populated place, it’s you who needs to offer services from door to door. Once you've established a good relationship with customers, you can relax a little bit more.
Close ties to companies, agencies, and other clients help you focus on what you love: taking pictures. Even though you'll always have to remind people of how great you are and how necessary your services are to them, it’s easier when you’re an established partner. Word-of-mouth advertisement will help you a lot. People are happy when they know what they'll get.
What happens when your clients are not the people you need to shoot? If you know a talented model that you love to work with, it’s a win. But especially in documentary photography and photojournalism, close ties to people can be a problem and even harm your projects and work.
Your Skills as a Neutral Photographer
First of all, your photography is never objective. At best, it’s balanced. The reason is simple: you make a selection. Primarily, you select a part of reality that you capture. Your settings, the setup of the camera, and the software which you’re going to use for post-processing are an individual choice. They alter reality. Just like your own mind does.
You also make a broader selection. Which parts of reality should be shown? Do you photograph the obvious, the broad, the particular scene? And how and where are you going to present them? There is no such thing as objectivity in photography. We have to live with this flaw, but it also makes our lives more interesting and exciting.
The conclusion of the lack of objectivity is very important, though. You have to do your job well. Proper research of your subject and a strategy on how to present it are essential for responsible work. And responsibility is a fairly desirable characteristic in documentary and journalistic photography. Let’s take a look at how relationships play into this responsibility.
I Know Someone Over There
Let’s imagine you have a good relationship with a magazine, newspaper, or any other publisher. You’re lucky; this is where the money comes from. This client wants you to shoot a story about a certain community in your neighborhood or somewhere in the world. When your publisher tells you about the topic, you become excited. “I know someone over there!” You got the job. “It’ll be easy for me to get along,” you think. But is the easy way always the best?
I’m not talking about a heroic approach here, where you have to do everything on your own. Photojournalists don't have to be lone wolves. Relationships can help you enter a social space and get along quickly. But they can also make your job harder than it seems.
As soon as you have to report “about” a person, a group of people, a company, or organization, you don’t really work “with” them.
You’re in Power
One problem you will realize quickly is the problem of treason. It sounds a little overstated, but it isn’t. Every journalist’s challenge is to create a balanced report, which may include a good image of the subject, but also bad images.
A report about an acquaintance or even friend is quite challenging. There is a good chance your friend might think: “That’s cool! She or he will probably present me in the best possible light. After all, we’re friends.” You might think: “Cool, I know this person with all of his or her rough edges.”
And it is cool, because it gives you access. All the time that you invested in the relationship becomes part of your work. You need less extra hours, because you did a great part of your research in the past. But once you’re back home and make a selection of you images, you’ll realize some more thoughts are coming up: “Can I really publish this image? Did I misuse his or her trust?”
Imagine you shot photographs of your friend doing bad stuff. He or she laughs and tells you: “Haha, but you won’t publish this one, will you?!” You laugh as well, but back home, you rediscover this image on your card. Probably, you even find it quite fitting to counterbalance all the positivity that you shot. Will you call your friend to ask permission? You can't simply change the name like a writer for a newspaper can. A face is important in your photographs.
If you don’t ask, you might destroy a friendship, maybe even get sued. This is the extreme end of the scale. Another one is vanity. Not only since social media, people are keen to have pictures published in which they look great.
Your Friend Does the Groundwork
Every boss is also highly dependent on the workers on the ground. Even though you make a selection in the end, your subject decides what you will see.
Especially, when you know someone somewhere, you'll quickly be trapped in an imbalanced presentation of the environment. Your friend knows you, too, after all. He or she might know how to trap you and how to influence your perception. What sounds a little mean here can also be a subconscious way to convince you that your friend’s story is the truth.
In the past, I witnessed many people, even strangers, telling me a quite plausible story of their life. I listened to their words and became more and more excited, because the story was unbelievable. And so were the images I shot. A lifetime of injustice and exploitation, but the people would never give up and peacefully stand their ground. An unbelievable narrative. If you stopped here, you got a great story, but never the best.
A narrative is always just one perspective. Sometimes, you’ll find that it comes closest to your own perception of the story. For this conclusion, you still have to listen to the other side. Often, a counter-narrative exists, and it’s your task to responsibly balance the narratives. You’ve got to mediate and find your own story — the story that you will present.
Having a relationship with a participant or narrator in this story will always be a bias. As you have better access to their environment, you can take more images, move more freely, and probably find more images that represent his or her point of view. Your friend will also assume that he or she knows what you want to shoot and present suitable images on a silver plate. Friends help each other.
The Freedom of a Stranger
Whenever your client’s interest differs from the interest of the person in front of your lens, photography becomes tricky.
As a stranger, you'll struggle to get access to a new space. For doing a good job, you'll build new relationships in the field. These relationships can also become a deep connection. Still, they are different from formerly established friendships. You're not in danger of losing something that you didn’t have before.
You'll also be free to explore every part of the story, as you won’t have a stronger connection to one actor over the other. No one will feel the duty to help you out, and if someone does, you know it’s probably for presenting their own point of view.
It’s not impossible to shoot a good story about friends or acquainted people, but you need to realize that closer ties will blur your vision. And your vision is all that counts in photography.