The Big Q

In The Big Q by David12 Comments


The Big Q
“David, I’m an avid reader of your blog. Further, I cannot wait to get  my hands on your book as a source of inspiration. I’ve read all of the  available excerpts and am hungry for more. 🙂

I’m curious, how much directing do you have to do when out shooting.  In other words, are all of the scenes in your book, or in general,  candid, or are some of them posed? This might make a good blog post,  unless of course, it’s already in the book. It’s just something that  I’ve wondered about when I see great photography with pictures of  people in it.” – Paul.

The Big A
First, thanks for the kind worlds, Paul. Frankly, I can’t wait to get my hands on the book either. I should be getting one of the first copies off the press and FedEx could be arriving at any moment with a book with ink still wet!

Yes, this is answered in some part in the book, but perhaps not so directly. I think my images are a real mixed bag of candids, and portraits. The candids and street photography are, by nature, un-directed. The portraits, well that’s a mix too but there are certainly times when I will direct things. If you look at my work for World Vision, those are commercial images. Real children in real situations, with real animals. But I do what I need to in order to get the right angle, the right light, and other considerations. For example, if a dress or article of clothing is torn in such a way that it is immodest, I’ll safety pin it. My work isn’t journalistic and the client has policies surrounding issues of child-protection, so I do what needs to be done to get an image which is beautiful, honest, and complies with the clients’ needs.

I think what is often forgotten is that almost any presence on our part, and especially when there is interaction, is a directoral interference of some sort. And beyond that we chose our angle, our lens, our apertures, etc. So I assume I’m involved in process that’s already pretty invasive in terms of the “Is this real or posed?” question. The answer, even when the image took some work to get, even some posing, is – I hope – yes. Yes, it’s posed, but also real. Increasingly I’m shying away from images that are so camera-aware, increasingly I’m chasing portraits, both formal and posed, where there are less smiles, finding other expressions, possibly deeper ones even.

I think what’s important to remember is that if you endeavor to create images that are honest, respectful, and kind, it’s hard to go wrong. It’s more a question of taste, and what you’re trying to do with your images. (Unless you’re a photojournalist, and then your ethics force you – I hope – to a tighter standard)

Beyond that initial question is one of that addresses the How. How do you work with subjects in different languages, from different cultures, and get them to collaborate with you? The answer is this: with patience, a sense of humour, and often great difficulty.

My experience is that people are pleasers and when you point a camera at them, no matter if it’s your uncle or a man in Africa, they’ll start re-arranging things – from the expression on their face, to the tea-cup on the table that was in the absolute perfect spot. You want them to move an inch, they move a foot. You want them to ignore you, they pose and give you a thumbs-up. I can’t solve this one for you. But here’s what you don’t do: you don’t freak out, get impatient, mutter things under your breath, or do anything but treat them with patience and kindness. Remember, if you turn to a friend and say “Aw nuts, he moved the tea-cup. I was really stupid to even suggest it” – the man who speaks no English probably still knows the word “stupid” – and he hears “mumble, mumble, mumble STUPID mumble mumble,” and thinks you mean him. Not cool. I learned this in a humbling fashion from a kind man in Africa.

Be careful. Be flexible. Be patient. The people we meet and photograph are not theme park mascots, they have the right to say no, and the right to mess up your photograph with the best of intentions.At the risk of sounding overly self-promotional, there’s a longer discussion of these kinds of issues in my book, if the subject interests you.

The Big Q is your chance to drop a question in my lap. As I get busier and busier, this may be your best chance to have the question answered. Leave your Qs in the comments.


  1. David,
    I read an article about a photographer who went to Africa and took a picture of a young girl. Fast forward 10-15 years, now that girl is a young woman living in the US, and she finds out the picture taken of her many years ago is selling at a prestigious gallery in NYC. She sues the photographer for an undisclosed amount. The matter is settled out of court.
    My question to you is:Since your photography is commercial in nature, how do you handle model release forms? Most of the people you photograph I assume do not speak english, and some might be illiterate. And I’m guessing that introducing a contract changes the dynamic of the exchange between subject and photographer.

  2. David, good advice. I like to think that when photographing people in situtations as you describe, that I am acting as an ambassador for other photographers in the future. I want to leave the person with a positive impression, so that if down the road someone else comes along and asks to photograph them, they will remember the positive aspects of their interaction with me and agree to being photographed again.

    On this note, if ever I agree to forward on a photograph that I have taken of the sitter, I make sure that I do as it often means so much to people who don’t have access to cameras etc. On one occasion I was right out in the boonies near Kangchenjunga and a local guy asked me to photograph him and his family. I got another local guy to write out the proud Dad’s address in Sanskrit and then stuck that piece of paper on the enevlope when sending him his images.

  3. Thank you for mentioning that once we point a camera at a person and they see that camera, the acting or pleasing begins. It is an art to be the center of attention and keep your own attention off yourself. We can’t expect that from people who haven’t studied the craft. Thanks for stating all these things so effectively.

  4. Sometimes, when working alongside a translator, I notice the translator, in their enthusiasm to help, suddenly starts inserting their OWN instructions to the subject (smile!, hold this, look over here, etc.)!

  5. Author

    @ Tim S – Yes! They do! Drives me NUTS.

    @DT – You said it! This is one of the reasons I am such a huge fan of the Polaroid Pogo printer. I once lost my Moleskine notebook in Northern Africa – had names and addresses of people I planned to send images to – I still get frustrated when I think of them sitting there shaking their heads – “See, Ahmed, I TOLD you he wouldn’t send us our photograph!” Sigh.

  6. A question along similar lines as the Big Q: how do you balance your vision verses the vision of the art director/graphic designers that ask for specific images? I know they are the client and you need to give them what they need but what if they are too constrained? Similarly, how do you balance planning beforehand with reacting in the field?

    Thanks again,

  7. David, thanks for answering the question. I appreciate it. Of course, I’m interested! Now you’ve made me want the book even more! 🙂


  8. that mumble mumble Stupid mumble mumble quote is so bang on….not only photography, these kind of things can really put u into a big soup in daily life too…especially where language is a barrier…learnt that in a hard way in my day job in Thailand

  9. Thanks for sharing. Patience and the willingness to interact in a level way with your subjects, I guess. With that in mind, hopefully I will feel more comfortable photographing people while traveling from now on.

    Still waiting for your book to arrive!

  10. I have recently joined a group on flickr, 100subjects, which encourages people to take photos of individuals. Learning their name, talking to them when photographing them, and just having fun are all part of the activity.

    As a new photographer, I’ve found it difficult to approach perfect strangers and ask them to take their picture. I just posted my first of my 100 subjects, and was surprised at how easy it was to ask to take someone’s photo.

    Having done it once, hopefully will make it easier the next time.

    Thanks for the great advice……………….:)

  11. The question of candid versus unposed is one I’ve started pondering after beginning photography classes. Our instructor is unrepentant about completely directing what is within the frame – to the point where he suggested in a critique of one of my photos of a statue framed by trees that it would be even better if I got a red cardinal and climbed up and put it in the tree myself (the whole class reacted in amused shock at the idea).

    I think of photography more as documentary; if I had the option of me and my camera being completely invisible, I would have been strongly be tempted to take it until reading both this post and Lisa’s comments above.

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