Photo Prose

By Gary Rabenko

The public feels that photographers are selfish. We can be distracting, we cost more, and we take too long. Some photographers have an attitude, miss the most important shots, want to charge for each shot after “being paid for the whole job,” and so on. Many more accusations are made, with various degrees of truth to them.

The mainstream media is making much of a new word: selfies.

Every professional and amateur photographer has made a self-portrait at some point. It comes with the territory, and is often an educational assignment. Following notorious selfies made at bridge-jumping attempts and by failed mayoral candidates, and culminating this past week with Obama at the Mandela memorial, these snapshots of oneself, usually made with smartphones, are getting media criticism for being selfish acts.

Taking a selfie is considered a conceited, self-absorbed, egotistical action that inserts oneself into history, or attempts to make history. The negative response to this practice is interesting, because photographers have to deal with selfishness by people who have an uncontrollable need to snapshot what we pros are doing. It must be a compulsion similar to nail-biting. And it is far more selfish than any professional photographer could be. We strive to please the client. They constantly undermine us and so hurt the client.

Photographic budgets keep dropping. Photographers know less and less, and keep taking the easiest path; it is a race to the bottom where client expectations are low from the price to the final product. So what happens when someone cares, and hires a pro like me? What happens when the photographer is asked to do a large outdoor four-generation family portrait of 40 persons?

The grandparents did the hiring. But the married children all come armed with smartphones. They each want to make their own photographs. And who is to stop them? The grandparents care about the shot, wanting large, small, and varied prints. I am arranging the group, but each parent is holding out, each wanting to be the last into the group, so as to get his or her own shot.

Is that not selfish? How am I supposed to design the composition? The nanny and housekeeper are trying to juggle phones while squeezing off some shots before mine and between mine. Where do you think everyone is looking?

The right thing to do is for the photographer to make an announcement that they may take their photos after the photographer has left, packed up, and broken down, but that they should please not do so during the shoot. But that is futile.

My interest is doing a great job. I want every face to be visible. I want each expression to be meaningful. We are working outdoors. Members of the public just push a button. The pro is concerned with a result that shows depth and character in the shot, requiring several lights to be carefully positioned, aimed, metered, and continually adjusted as the clouds move.

What is the single most significant factor that will affect how the photograph appears later? Like all things in life, it is attitude. What should my attitude be? I am there for the client. I respect this beautiful moment and how much the gathering will mean down the road.

I am there to shoot a complete group, with photographs of the grandparents and all their children, the grandchildren as a group, and each of the individual families. There are many more shots I can do, and I want to do them. But a good photographer does not work off a list. A good photographer works from one shot to the next according to what he sees and what he feels. A good photographer does not get subject reaction by counting “one, two, three,” or by telling jokes. He gets reactions by talking to the subjects. That is the best way. And this involves thinking and reacting to what he is seeing.

Did I make a mistake by not insisting that all leave their phones inside? Who would have listened? A phone, today, represents a vault of personal data and unlocks codes to the whole world’s secrets. It is not easily set aside. But using it during a professional photo shoot is selfish, and no less selfish than the examples found in the news. The grandparents have no cameras in hand. They cannot know how much it affects the results for which they are paying. And photographers don’t know what to do other than bite their tongue. Being distracted so many times by persons behind me, or to my side–what’s the use!

Doing a large group means operating from a distance. Projecting a sweet friendly voice above the birds and the wind is enough of a challenge. A good speaker will wait till he gets everyone’s attention. But waiting only leads to more phone photos and subjects’ growing impatience.

People have only a certain attention span. The first reaction is fun, but soon it becomes work. It is not fair to the client when guests and family are selfish. The client ordered a lot of photos. No one was upset by my meek attempt at control. But when I insist phones be put down, everyone gets upset. I do not want to be the bad guy.

People think that if they take their photos after mine, it is somehow O.K. No! It is still a distraction. It still affects my whole tempo and concentration. It reminds everyone of the cameras, when my whole style is to have people forget them. And if they will be buying my photos, then why undermine the product I work to make for them? If they will not, then what could be more selfish to those who are paying?

How do you feel about this? I would love to share your opinions, suggestions, and questions with other readers in the future. Please write me. v

Gary Rabenko can be reached at Rabenko Photography & Video Artists is located at 1001 Broadway in Woodmere.

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