by Gary Rabenko

A photographer’s job involves paying particular attention to faces. A face can convey every bit of emotion one might experience, or it can be tepid. I love blank faces as much as animated ones, for they have so much potential. And with the right stimulus they can slowly — sometimes imperceptibly — come alive. Not with the exuberance of the rapid responders, but sometimes it is refreshing to experience the subtlety with which the indifferent expression grows.

Facial expression is all about the visual, and photographers are all about recording what can be seen and should be sensitive to expressions all around them. You have probably read that I’m not there to photograph what’s happening but to photograph what’s about to happen. In most cases, what is about to happen is, to some extent, hinted at by some face in the crowd. I need to watch and to know that all faces are not equal. People respond differently and at different speeds. It is because faces in a crowd are so different that their unanimity when present makes such a compelling statement and helps viewers read so much more from the crowd than if the ceremony or celebration were recorded in private.

This is true for all emotional moments, whether joyous or solemn. Our friends, family, and guests amplify emotional experiences. And that is precisely why we value their presence and hope they can share our special moments with us. Faces corroborate our interpretation of that which we experience.

Covering an event includes recording not just the principal players but how their activities are shared and experienced by others. As a guest you probably have been mindful of emotional moments that found you less involved due to distractions. Perhaps you had to respond to a text. Or you acknowledge someone you knew who was stepping out of that moment to acknowledge you. After that brief distraction your senses return to you and you try to refocus and hope your absence was not obvious to too many! But you had been distracted and it showed.

Visitors to my studio enjoy photos of crowd scenes. Many are touched by the powerful emotions, be they joyous or the opposite. But in a crowd are other faces, too. Uninvolved faces. And those faces we try to ignore when possible. You see them in your friends’ albums or even your own. They often jar and contradict the moments the page means to document. They are the workers’ faces, and the incongruity of those faces can shatter the whole visual experience otherwise so compelling.

Their bodies can be stationary or in motion. Video will show that movement while photographs catch them midstride. They play many important roles and are essential to the successful event. Whether they are waiters, bus boys, maître d’s, venue management, or the many levels of security deployed today, each and every one is contributing to the successful, pleasurable, and safe experience enjoyed by all.

But they look like they are working. They are not there to party. They don’t care that it shows they are proud of the job they are doing or maybe they can’t wait to stop doing. Their faces don’t lie. They are not moved to tears by the most heart-wrenching of speeches as other faces are, nor are they filled with joy and laughter during the happiest of moments.

Most of the time their faces are blank and so they appear uninterested as they concentrate on their work. In somber situations, that blank face may be read by some with offense, interpreted as disrespect. Cultural differences between workers and the crowd they are in will sometimes amplify or exacerbate how such apathy is interpreted. But those are the workers. It is somewhat to be expected. Many will rationalize that they have a task at hand and are not there to politely sympathize with the event regardless of what is happening.

I have had crewmembers sometimes get caught up in the partying spirit and I can tell you I didn’t allow that to continue for too long. Sure, I like my people to be happy and enjoy their work, but my concerns—in addition to the shaking camera or a rattling light—was that their likelihood of catching impending technical glitches was reduced by that behavior. I also felt judgmental observers might question such behavior and worry about the results. I can understand that.

What I don’t understand and refuse to accept is how the majority of photographer-videographers and their supportive crew members rarely question the demeanor they are exhibiting, nor have given any effort to self-disciplining their behavior. Such is not the mind and heart of artists.

Those are the faces I am concerned with. On my shoots those are the faces I am expected to be responsible for. Of course, human nature being what it is I find myself powerless in such situations. But the face in the crowd I have had in mind from the beginning here is the photographer’s face, especially one who considers himself an artist. Or the videographer’s face if she, too, aspires to practice sensitivity and talent. Am I saying they should be shaking to the beat or laughing at the punchline? No, because then they become part of the story that others might be telling, and they are not there for that. But a person who would enjoy what he’s doing should be expected to be reasonably happy doing it and should be pleased in his own way — being where he is to creatively document emotion. Similarly, during serious moments, I try to appreciate the gravity of my goal, to do justice to the event, its participants, and my craft. Thus, naturally I exhibit a demeanor that develops as I regard the moment and my responsibilities.

The photographer-videographer is always part technician. With the constant considerations regarding still-needed shots, the preparation for what’s coming next, the logistical consideration that burdens every photographer-videographer as he constantly evaluates the variables of angle distance, light camera settings, and so much more, I can certainly tell you not to expect a face to always jive with those of the event. But just sometimes it’s good to remember the importance of that face. How that face is seen will be regarded later and then judged to support or contradict the overall visual experience on the screen or in the print. When among a whole roomful of revelers, the second photographer appears emotionally aloof, so different that’s a problem; it’s jarring.

When the hard-working first photographer is observed by the second photographer to be distracted or distant, perhaps that, too, could be brought to his attention, thus quickly remedied. Most sensitive and talented image producers don’t wish to be seen that way. All it usually takes is a quick point to your lips as you smile, or a finger’s tap to your head with a nod, to refocus a working but well-intentioned face in the crowd! With just a little bit of thought and continued practice they should be sure not to become that face in the crowd, whether they are the official professional photographer-videographer or one of the many smartphone-holders trying to be.

Rabenko Photography & Video Arts is located at 1053 Broadway in Woodmere. To learn more, contact Gary@Rabenko.com, 1-888-RABENKO, 888-722-3656, or visit Rabenko.com.

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