Photo Prose

By Gary Rabenko

I got a call on Sunday. “Joe” was on the way to a large wedding when his assistant texted him, “No way can I make it today. Ears cracking. My mother is on the way with a thermometer!” (His mother?!) “Dennis” is nearly 40 years old, and while he should always have a wonderful mother who loves and takes care of him, the whole situation is sick, I think. Joe was desperately trying to find a replacement for Dennis.

I was taught that there is only one reason for ever missing an event. That reason is death. Not someone else’s. Only my own! My mother was a ballerina and my uncle a pianist. I dabbled in theater. So a “show must go on” mentality was a natural for me. Thank G‑d I have been fortunate. Yet I have worked with the flu, with injured limbs, kidney stones, and vertigo, and with countless colds of the head, chest, and stomach. The show must go on. When a client is relying on me to photograph his once-in-a-lifetime event, I must be there! There are no retakes, no do-overs, and no makeup days.

How do you feel about this? My policy has always been that if I had a really terrible and seemingly contagious condition, I would leave it up to the client to decide. But since I don’t touch any of the subjects during my photo sessions, and since covering the event in an unobtrusive manner means not getting into small talk, I have found that most clients do not want to be asked. They hired the artist they want and have trust in, and any talk of injury or illness only adds additional stress at a time when the clients are hoping and planning for so much. So I just suck it up. I take some meds and I get myself to the gig, where usually adrenaline takes over and I forget about my illness until later. That is how I was taught it should be.

Dennis was Joe’s (not their real names) longtime assistant. He was an employee who got a yearly vacation and major medical coverage. From the beginning he was told in no uncertain terms that the show must go on. He did not particularly enjoy assisting, nor was he the best assistant Joe ever had. But as a full-time studio employee, his inside responsibilities made him the one it made most sense to have on the shoot. Knowing how images will be used later helps to make the images what they need to be on the shoot. Responsibility for gear in the studio and preparing it for the job make him the one most likely to operate it and keep it working properly.

Obviously, Dennis was not near death. Had he been near death, an ambulance, not a thermometer, would have been sent by Mom. If one is truly ill, temperature is immaterial. And if one can function, even partially, then get to the job, and do your job. Had he been really sick he would have texted from the emergency room if conscious. Had he really been ill, he probably would have been recuperating for the next week, not as he was, ready and able to work the next day.

Sure, he was miserable. I understand that. I have felt similar all too often. Joe understood that Dennis was hurting. His ears were all crackly (due to sinus problems, mine usually are most days), he felt flushed and was sweating, he was somewhat dizzy and could have felt a bit nauseous at times. But he did not say something like this, for example: “Joe, I am feeling really terrible and I do not know how much help I would really be to you, but I know you are counting on me and if you want me to come, or cannot find anyone else, I will be there and do the best I can. I might be a few minutes late as I am trying to get my mother to drive me. And if it is at all possible, would you be able to give me a lift after the shoot, or let me know when it will be over so my mother can come and pick me up?”

That is what a person does who has accepted his responsibility and understands that it cannot be both ways. Either this is a once-in-a-lifetime event and as such it cannot be missed, or it is not important and does not need special photography. Either this is a job that needs a skilled assistant no matter how that assistant is feeling, or it never needed a skilled assistant and any gofer will do. Either the customer is paying for excellence and must get it, or it does not matter if the photographer sends a replacement or who is assisting him.

Many people who watch a good photographer work at a wedding marvel at how difficult and demanding the job is, both physically and mentally. Being alert and on one’s feet often for 12 hours from the time of setup to breakdown and constantly reacting to the ever-changing conditions is very tiring. Being physically active while both carrying and operating gear that still can be clumsy and awkward adds to that.

Are Joe and I wrong for expecting too much from an assistant, and from ourselves? Does the public’s view of photographers today, the public’s race to find the cheapest and most generous photographer, really mandate such responsible character? Are we crazy for setting the bar so high for ourselves and those we rely on? Or are people like Dennis crazy to think that their discomfiture should be given more respect–and so many reasons other than death or near-death might be a reason for skipping a job?

Are photographers crazy or stupid? If our work is important, then should we not be given the respect of being invited to eat during the times that normally one eats? Does anyone think of the photographer? Often I see 40 musicians eating. That is in their contract. But the photographer who started six hours earlier and is not sitting down or getting breaks gets no food–that is considered normal!

What about the portrait session? You want the photographer to elicit meaningful expressions and beautiful poses, and to use light that is flattering and glamorous. But you also want him to do that while you are copying his poses in your photography and interrupting or upstaging his “performance” that gets the meaningful responses. He is working hard to get images for you, so why make it more difficult–is that right?

There are many ways in which my industry is sick. Are photographers paid to acquire the images–in which case that is most important and should be billed accordingly? Or are they paid to provide end products such as prints and books? Well, then, how can you expect them at cost? You get what you pay for. Should that be someone who cares, or just anyone who can make it that day? Must the show go on, or is it ultimately only optional? v

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

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