In 2009, Gillian Laub’s story in The New York Times Magazine about segregated high school proms in Mount Vernon, Georgia, stirred national outrage, which finally forced the community to integrate the proms. Afterwards, Laub faced down the hostility and threats of locals to work on a documentary film about race relations in the area. In this PDN video, she describes the challenges of filming where she was unwelcome, and how she managed to win the confidence of her subjects– including a murder suspect who had granted no media interviews before he sat down with Laub. Titled “Southern Rites,” the film debuts May 18 on HBO. Laub’s still photographs are showing at Bonnie Benrubi Gallery in New York City from May 14-June 27, 2015. Damiani will also publish a book of the work in June.
At a turning point early in his career, veteran celebrity photographer Brian Smith had a brazen (and slightly cringe-worthy) encounter with John Huston, the famous movie director. He got away with it–just barely. At the time, Smith was a staff photographer on assignment for the Orange County Register. He was trying to take his career to the next level, and the shoot with Huston was an object lesson in how to do that, as he explains in this video. (Smith is a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer and author of Secrets of Great Portrait Photography.)
Nothing is more important on a celebrity shoot than engaging your subject, says photographer Brian Smith. “The lighting, the locations, and the props all matter, but if you’re not actually making a connection with the subject, the pictures really fall flat.” Smith, the author of Secrets of Great Portrait Photography and other books, has been photographing celebrities, athletes and executives for more than 30 years. In this video, he explains one of his best strategies for connecting with a celebrity on set.
Chris Jordan, the photographer and conservationist, has spent his career exploring the harmful consequences of our thoughtless consumption and the pollution we create, while also making images that are often eerily beautiful. At the Society for Photographic Education (SPE) National Conference in New Orleans on March 13, he showed a trailer and clips from “Midway,” inspired by his years photographing the albatrosses of the Midway Atoll, located in the north Pacific 2000 miles from the nearest continent. Jordan and a film crew have documented the birds mating, laying eggs, and also dying as a result of having consumed plastic garbage from the ocean. Many choke to death, gasping for air on the shore; others die from toxicity or from starvation when their stomachs become full of indigestible materials.
The theme of the 2015 SPE conference was “Atmospheres: Climate, Equity and Community in Photography,” and during his talk, Jordan shared his approach to activism and the reactions he hopes his film evokes. He doesn’t want simply to highlight a problem, but to change the way people feel and act. (more…)
Photographer Ruddy Roye has attracted 116,000 Instagram followers despite–or perhaps because of–his gritty, difficult subject matter and the long captions he posts to help humanize his subjects. Using Instagram largely as a tool of social activism, Roye draws attention to racial and economic injustice primarily in New York City, and often in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, where he lives. “A lack of black images [and] black photographers has created this void for people like me,” says Roye, who was born and raised in Jamaica. “Instagram has allowed me a light that didn’t exist before.” In this video, he explains how he found his Instagram voice, and discusses the professional risks he is taking by refusing to look away and remain silent.
Photographer Endia Beal’s video “Office Scene” demonstrates how it is possible to make strong, compelling video with almost nothing, if you’re smart about it.
The video is a foray into the discomfort zone of inter-office race and personal relations. Beal, who is African American, heard rumors around a corporate office she worked in that several of her white male colleagues were fascinated by her hair. So she decided to let them touch it–on the conditions that they really dig their hands in, and agree to talk on tape afterwards about how the experience felt to them. Amazingly enough, they agreed. “I transform into a voyeuristic actress fulfilling the desires of my male colleagues,” Beal explains. She uses just two video shots to tell the story. By focusing her camera on the banal and stripping the visuals down to a minimum, she’s able to use the audio to maximum effect, leaving much to the imagination of the viewer.
Beal projected this video, along with her more recent (and equally compelling) “9 to 5″ video, at the National Geographic Photography Seminar last month in Washington, DC.
She explained at that seminar that her work is intended to push conversation about the experience of women of color in corporate America, particularly about issues that people are afraid to talk about. Beal credited Tod Papageorge with pushing her to use photography to explore her own experiences while she was enrolled in the MFA photography program at Yale.
“I said, ‘[Those experiences are] so intimate and personal to me,'” she recounted. “He said, ‘Those are the stories that need to be told.’ So I took the risk. I had no idea that something so personal and private could be universally translated, that other people could understand, that a minority woman could speak to the universal.
“The history of photography for minority women is still being written,” she continued. “I think about Deborah Willis, LaToya Ruby Frazier, Deana Lawson, Carrie Mae Weems, Lorna Simpson–all these wonderful women. But our book is really short. If I can add a couple of photographs to that narrative, then I’ve done my job.”
With support from two clients and a creative approach to funding, photographer Sim Chi Yin has just released this video showing an old project from a new, more immersive angle. The video profiles Zhang Xi, a college graduate turned street peddler who is part of Beijing’s “Rat Tribe,” so named because they live in sub-standard apartments in the basements and former bomb shelters of the city.
Sim’s portraits of “Rat Tribe” basement dwellers, which she began making in 2010, have been widely published–and widely acclaimed. She previously produced a multimedia slideshow of the portraits. But this video expands on her earlier work by exploring how one subject ended up living in a Beijing basement, the tension it has caused with his parents, and what day-to-day life is like for him.
The video, published January 24 by Creative Time Reports (CTR) and Al Jazeera America, is also a case study in multi-source production funding. Sim says it was first “leanly funded” by CTR, a media website that commissioned the video last fall for a European conference on migration issues. For additional funding, Sim applied to the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting. Around the same time, Al Jazeera America asked Sim for new portraits of Beijing basement dwellers, and an updated multimedia piece. So she put CTR and Al Jazeera in touch with each other, and “they decided to work together and timed their publications to appear on the same day.”
Sim hired producer Yin Jiawei, a recent college graduate, to work as a fixer and assist with the shooting. The video was edited by Jian Yi, a freelance Chinese filmmaker.
Based on the lessons he’s taught to photography students over the past five years at PhotoPlus Expo and elsewhere, legendary photographer Jay Maisel recently published Light, Gesture & Color (New Riders Press). He describes the book as one “for people that are tired of bullshit books that tell them exactly what to do, and so they get rote results.” In this video, Maisel shares advice from his book on how to take better photographs, including tips on how to be a more successful street photographer. In a separate PDN video, Maisel explains what he means by the term “gesture,” why it is an important element of good photographs, and how to recognize and use it to your advantage.
For PDN’s January 2015 print edition, we spoke with photographer Matt Black about the photo essay he made for The New Yorker about the drought in California’s Central Valley. Black, who lives in Exeter, California, has been documenting the valley—which produces much of the country’s food—for more than 15 years.
But the story in The New Yorker was assigned before Black ever got involved; months earlier, photographer Ed Kashi had successfully pitched a story on the drought to Whitney Johnson, the magazine’s director of photography. When it came time to shoot the story, however, Kashi realized that Black—his former assistant—was not just embedded, but invested, in the valley, and would be a perfect collaborator.
“I was thinking, I’ll never, in the week or so I have of field time, produce the body of still work that this man has produced over 15 years,” Kashi says. “So why try to reinvent the wheel?”
Kashi proposed that he would shoot motion, and Black would shoot stills, and Johnson was quickly on board. Sky Dylan-Robbins, a video producer at The New Yorker, would edit their work into the 7-minute video that ran on newyorker.com.
“It was fun,” Kashi admits. “We were like two little kids in a way, photo buddies who were just looking for visuals and trying to figure out how to put the narrative together without getting bogged down in the weeds of the issue. Because the issue of water in California is insanely complicated.”
Striving for new and unusual ways to photograph subjects from land, sea, and air, National Geographic photographers often turn for technical assistance to NG photo engineers Kenji Yamaguchi and David Mathews. The two men, who are the subjects of an article in January PDN and now on PDN online, devise ingenious tools for making pictures that would otherwise be too dangerous or difficult for photographers to make. ““These guys are the unsung heroes of the Geographic,” says long-time contributor George Steinmetz.
Yamaguchi and Mathews worked behind the scenes on Nick Nichols’s Serengeti lions project, Steve Winter’s snow leopards project, and various projects by underwater photographer David Doubilet, to name just a few examples. Here are some videos that show their technical ingenuity in action:
Nick Nichols and his assistant, Nathan Williamson, at work on the Serengeti lions project with a robotic camera tank and a camera drone.
Steve Winter explains how he used camera traps to photograph a mountain lion at night under the Hollywood sign.
The Photo Engineering department faces possible budget cuts, but National Geographic recently profiled of Kenji Yamaguchi, with this video showing him at work in the publisher’s Photo Engineering lab.
Addition videos on National Geographic’s web site:
Scenes from the sinking of a ship for the creation of an artificial reef, featuring David Doubilet’s remote camera images from the ship’s deck as engineers set explosive charges, then detonated them. Remote camera images begin at 1:21.