Photography Campus Blog

Photography serves a noble purpose, if we want it to.

It's Easter.

And I'm reminded of a project I was involved in a couple of years ago with fellow Photography Campus member John Robb.

It was six weeks after the horrific bush fires that swept country Victoria.

We were asked to go up Flowerdale - a town as good as decimated by the blaze - to record some images for the community.

Sounds easy. Was hard.

Walking in to a closed, hurt community with a camera is uncomfortable at best.

But it was the real world and did provide us a with a huge real world photographic challenge.

STEP 1 IN EDITORIAL PHOTOGRAPHY - RESIST THE OBVIOUS:

I've been involved in documentary photography for some years now - starting in Congo - a place of horror. My role was to shoot for a charity over there called HEAL Africa.  The photos were to be used variously for fund raising, press, fine art prints, annual reports etc. All around Congo is war and horror. All around Flowerdale was devastation.

Enter my first question.

Do I just photograph the bad? Or do I also photograph the good?

In other words; what was the purpose of my photography?

The primary purpose was fund raising. So the answer was simple.

Whilst I needed to portray the ugly, I also needed to capture the beauty. People only give to ugly for so long. I needed people to develop a relationship with the place. And that meant I had to show them hope.

STEP 2 SEARCH FOR TRUTH:

It sounds grandiose but it's anything but. In all devastation there is hope. It may only be a flicker or an incidental action. But it's there. It's how we rise again.

In Congo, there was courage, humour and grace.  In Flowerdale there was the same. My job (and in the case of Flowerdale our job) was to capture, immortalise it, feed it back to the community and show the world as well. Every shot had to say in it's own way  we're down, but we're not done with yet.

STEP 3 FIND AN ANGLE:

In editorial photography you need an angle. An idea. A story. It may be a visual pun, a juxtaposition or a set up. It doesn't matter. The key is the message gets across without a word being spoken.

It means before you photograph, you think. You think 'if I had to get a message out there about hope, and I wasn't allowed any words, what would I do to symbolise it?' Would I have someone smile? Would I have them punch the air? Would I put a bunch of budding flowers in their hands? Would I photograph them from the ground up so they look like a soaring giant? What would I do?

Are there any props around?

Is there a background that helps convey the story better than others?

Can I use an inanimate object as a symbol of perseverance? Like a see saw tilted upwards or a ladder reaching for the sky?

Do colours make a difference? Should the background be in black and white and the subject in colour?

In editorial photography angles aren't just about the size of your lens. They're about the impact of your idea.

STEP 4 LOOK AND LEARN:

We have some brilliant editorial photographers in Australia. Pick up various papers and you'll see them. One of my favourites has always been Bruce Postle  who shot for the Melbourne Age.

There also some fantastic sites you can check out like 24 hours in pictures by The Guardian Newspaper.

I suggest you visit them regularly to get ideas. Look how photographers frame their shots. See which ones they think are great. They're not always the most technically proficient. They are always the best story tellers.

WHAT WE DID:

So what did we do in Flowerdale? Well it was Easter. The bush was scarred jet black and a local Church had organised an Easter Bunny to visit. He arrived on the fire engine that had helped saved what it could in the area. So that in itself was significant and worth a shot. 

But what else could we do? What would take us beyond the obvious? What way could we photograph this scene so that people would see the devastation and spirit in a whole new light?

WE KIDNAPPED THE EASTER BUNNY:

Sure it's technically illegal, and the bunny was a tad concerned as we drove him in to the burnt out forrest far from civilisation but...

We figured we had the chance for a great juxtaposition. 

White, pure, happy, friendly rabbit meet black, tortured, ravaged, despairing bush.

We wanted a photo where hope and hell collided.

So we plonked the dazed rabbit in the bush and started taking shots.

They were ok. Certainly they looked dramatic and the white and black was working a treat. But something was missing.

Heart.

We were taking photos for ourselves - for our own artistic pleasure. But that's not why we were there. We were supposed to be there for the community. We were supposed to be delivering hope, not a historical record. They already knew where they'd been. They wanted some idea of where they could go. We needed to reacquaint  ourselves with the question: what is the purpose of our photography?

And then John came up with the idea that provided the answer.

"Just look like your superman" he yelled out to the rabbit. "Look like you're about to take off and fly".

The rest is history.

And hanging in the CFA shed in Flowerdale.

Next time something rotten happens and you think you can't do anything to help, think again. 

Happy Easter.

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