Documentary project: Any tips?

Discussion in 'Beyond the Basics' started by Gabriel, Oct 20, 2009.

  1. Gabriel

    Gabriel TPF Noob!

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    After years of putting up excuses as to why I can't do something like this, I'll be starting my first personal journalistic project. I have the particulars laid out, I know the kind of people I need to seek out for this photo essay, and I'm guessing my biggest sources will be craigslist and word of mouth (I happen to know a lot of people that should know others who fit my criteria).

    I'm going to put together a brief proposal, not really to show people but so that I have my objective down. I'll also have a short list of questions to ask my subjects (as a way of relaxing them, and for my own notes). I'll put together a model release, though the only compensation I can offer will be prints from the shoot.

    I expect to shoot mostly digital, but some 35mm film as well. On location, environmental portraiture, easy single-flash setup.

    It's possible that once I have some material together, I may submit it to galleries, or put together a small book. I know it will take some time to get enough stuff together for it.

    I have all the equipment I need, save for a good flash diffuser, but I'll be getting that in the next week or two. That will give me time to get everything else in order.

    Anything that anyone with experience in this wants to add? Any tips or suggestions? I know that my site does not really show any of this kind work, but at least people will see I am the real deal, so to speak - I am actually a photographer, and I am actually serious.

    Ears and eyes are wide open, so please share if you think of something.
     
  2. GeneralBenson

    GeneralBenson TPF Noob!

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    So, I would love to give you input. But I've read your post three times, and can't find the part where you actually tell us what your doing. So you're doing a personal project, but what kind of project? Shooting people it sounds like, but any people? A certain kind of people? More details please.
     
  3. Gabriel

    Gabriel TPF Noob!

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    Sorry, maybe I'm being too secretive for some reason, though I was just looking for general tips. But I want to do a project on bikers with disabilities, people that love riding - and what they get out of it - so much that they overcame some big physical obstacles. I've been a rider for several years (though I don't have any disabilities), and haven't owned a car since I bought my first bike. I think the people I photograph and I will be able to relate to one another on at least a couple of different levels, and it's a subject that is close to me in many ways, and a world (motorcycling) that is not in any way strange to me.

    I think it should make for some compelling stories and images.
     
  4. gsgary

    gsgary Been spending a lot of time on here!

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  5. c.cloudwalker

    c.cloudwalker TPF Noob!

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    Very nice idea. Being an ex-biker, I will be looking forward to see the results.

    I am putting together a similar project but yours has potential for a much wider audience. Mine is a series of portraits of people in my city.

    So here are my thoughts: Documentary photography, imo, is basically dead. I did a few years ago that got published but back then people were still somewhat interested in that kind of things. Today, we are more into video and speed. I don't mean mph lol. If you watch a movie of today and one from 20-30 years ago, you will notice the difference and, I think, understand what I'm talking about.

    Still, it is worthwhile trying. And, as I said, your idea has more possibilities. Mine is what I call "Words and Images." Photos of local people and their story about the city in their own words. I'm planning several different things: the first one being a single image and their words. That is with the hope of getting a regular column in one of the local paper. It is also for a gallery show.

    The second is a video. Mix of photos and interviews of all the people who will sit for me plus some photos of the city. There are ways to make still images into a non-static video.

    Mine will be all B&W because that is how I prefer portraits and it will fit the racial tensions here too :( But I think I would definitely shoot yours in color. Bikes and rider apparel are usually pretty colorful so it would be a pity to do it in anything but color.

    However, I would not mix film and digital. Pick one and stick with it for the entire project.

    As for the photos, since they are portraits, I would keep them very simple to keep the attention on the person and the bike. Just be careful that the bike itself does not take over the image.

    Hope that helps get you started. You are welcome to ask more questions too.
     
  6. flamitchi

    flamitchi TPF Noob!

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    looks good and congrats. hope you enjoy the car like many of us
     
  7. Derrel

    Derrel Mr. Rain Cloud

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    I've looked through hundreds of photo books in my life, and viewed a lot of documentary work, ranging from Lewis Hine's work to Larry Clark's famous "Tulsa",and so on. And one of the things that strikes me about much of the very finest documentary work is that it often has a very strong "imprint" or what I call "impression". What I mean is that the work is often accomplished with one specific type of camera, or only one or two lenses, or one style of lighting ,like Shelby Lee Adams, who favors 4x5 and studio flash,even when shooting up in the hollows. His book Appalachian Lives is pretty cool stuff...makes me think about modern life and American materialism,etc. But I digress...the most successful documenatary work that I ave seen has a look or gives an "impression",and much of that is brought about by the simple,technical aspects.

    Erich Salomon's 1920's-era candid nightlife scenes were made possible by the world's first truly fast lens, the f/2 and later f/1.9 Ernostar lenses...back when an f/8 was a moderate speed lens,and f/6.3 was FAST! His use of the Ermanox miniature glass-plate SLR created a body of work that was very,very different from the stiff, posed work of its era. It looks unlike 99% of the work done in that era,and it looks so "real" because nobody had to stop doing anything to "Freeze please!" for indoor shots.

    Like, for example, 4x5 sheet film, exposed with a powerful studio strobe, is capable of revealing the most-minute details in a room wallpapered with old newsprint pages, and shows every single last wire in a screen door 15 feet from the camera, and the strong shadows cast by a medium sized light source, all this helps make the individual photos seem almost hyper-real and also enough like one another that the sum is greater than the whole of its parts.

    Robert Frank's nation-wide 1955 trip across the USA that resulted in the famous book The American's was shot mostly on Plus-X and Kodak's old Super-XX film, and mostly with a thread mount Leica and 35mm and 50mm primes, and a few that look almost certainly to be a 90mm, so the book has MOSTLY 'normal" and a few "slightly telephoto" looking images. There's a lot of "sameness", and the impression is a close-range, normal lens, B&W look at the USA of the mid 1950's.

    Other documentarians have gone to huge sheet film. Joel Meyerowitz's summers spent at Cape Cod, and shooting with an 8x10 Deardorff using color NEGATIVE film, when all the big-name pros shot only color TRANSPARENCY film was a revelation to me. I remember reading a big,long,in-depth profile about the making of his book, Cape Light. He had a superb master printer make the images for him....color negative film can handle extreme dynamic range *IF* the negatives are printed by hand, with extreme burning in and doging, and for me, the book was a revelation, back when 99.9% of all "serious" photo books were made from almost exclusively color transparencies. Again, the huge 8x10 inch film, slow speed color negative film,and printed by a true master darkroom worker, Cape Light was sort of a revelation in the pre-HDR era.

    Sally Mann's use of large format and an older 300mm lens on social/documentary stuff lends an air of difference to her work. I gues what I am saying is, I would carefully consider trying to bring a type of overall cohesiveness, and overall "impression" to your project. Maybe through choice of a lighting source, like maybe a 45 inch umbrella used with two speedlights on one mount, or maybe by using a wide-aperture prime lens like a Sigma 30mm f/1.4, or maybe shooting everything at a really low ISO setting with an ultra-sharp prime lens, or maybe making every shot a vertical, or by doing *something* that will give you a frame work across the project that will help to show us that despite the multitude of people you photograph that there is something we all share. In today's zoom-lens, 10-24, 24-70, 70-200mm world, there's a tendency for the photographer to stand in no particular place and zoom in or out, and so there's never a really cohesive point of view--ultra-wide, short wide, wide, normal, medium tele,long tele all adds up to a lot of variety. Sometimes maybe too much variety.

    I just think that the best documentary work I have seen has all had one or two or three prevalent technical, immutable characteristics that has made the books feel unified. YMMV.
     
    Last edited: Oct 21, 2009
  8. Dismine

    Dismine TPF Noob!

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    sounds like a lot of work, but you seem motivated. GL
     
  9. DennyCrane

    DennyCrane No longer a newbie, moving up!

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    Go in as a student of your subject matter. Document in pictures what you're learning as you're learning and lead to a conclusion. This takes the reader along on the same journey you're taking. Don't go in trying to prove some point, but let the story take it's own path ...and you'll succeed.

    Great idea... good luck.
     
  10. Gabriel

    Gabriel TPF Noob!

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    Thanks for all the insightful replies, everyone. I almost didn't post anything here, but I'm glad that I did. I apologize for the late reply, the 45-hour work week and college make for little "me" time sometimes.

    gsgary, I'm just starting to do some research on this, but I'm not having much luck finding something like that over here. Great notion, though. I did find a small site with a forum, inspired by the UK's organization, and I can probably find something through the local AMA chapter (I've been thinking of becoming a member anyway, though I tend to be the "lone wolf-no club" type).

    c. cloudwalker, I'm doing this more for myself than anything. If it gets published, it would be terrific - for the work and also for the subject matter. I don't think too many people ever think about bikers that overcome disabilities. I'm part of the MTV generation (though I can't say I really grew up on it; my household never had cable), so I know what you mean about speed. I won't be doing any video, though. I don't have a way to edit, and for me, it would be too distracting from the images anyway.

    I think you have a point about mixing film and digital. Maybe I'll save the Minolta for another, smaller project I'm considering. I'm still considering several other key points of the direction of the biker project, like how it should look and what is it that I want out of every shoot.

    Derrel, some excellent points that I had not thought about just yet. I tend to shoot almost exclusively with a wide-angle zoom and a 50, and everything will be shot with either daylight or my Speedlite (or a mix of both), so there should be a cohesive style throughout. Actually, my biggest anxiety (besides wondering if I will find enough willing people to pose for me) is whether I will choose the right angles from the beginning, or want to change things up the further I get into it, and thus make the earlier images seem irrelevant. But I have enough self-confidence to feel like I will get past that.

    You mentioned some fantastic documentarians. My biggest influences will likely be Lauren Greenfield and Nan Goldin. I've been looking at their work for years. Lise Sarfati is quickly becoming another favorite. For some reason, I seem to think that women photographers can get in closer, and it shows in their work. (Another anxiety: Do I have the social tact to get the images that I am looking for? I should be OK for this first project, with my camera in hand and being around fellow bikers.)

    Dismine, thanks. I don't expect to get done within a few weeks, I know stuff likes this takes time. I want to have a certain time frame in place to keep pushing myself, but I'm figuring it to be at least a year before I can get some work together.

    DennyCrane, that's certainly going to be my approach. The only point I will have with this work is that people who really love riding will try to get through anything to continue. I think that point will get proven with every image, but it's the stories behind those pictures that will make the project.
     

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