Saturday, 14 May 2011

POV: To Stage Or Not To Stage?

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy - All Rights Reserved
I was invited a year or so ago as contributor, with other photographers (such as renowned travel photographer Bob Krist), on Pixiq, an online community where a group of professional photographers engage other enthusiasts about photography and related interests, and while it was very tempting, I excused myself because I just didn't have the time.

I occasionally drop by Pixiq to read some well-informed posts from other travel photographers, and recently I was interested in an article by Jim Zuckerman entitled Travel Photography Portraits in which he candidly tells his readers that he carefully pre-plans his photo shoots, and sets up his travel photographs, whether these are in Himbaland or elsewhere in the world.

I was equally interested to read a couple of comments, made by Marc-André Pauzé and others, essentially querying Zuckerman's work ethic for staging photo shoots, and then paying his "models". Both sides eventually get a little defensive, since they have opposing points of view.

This is not an unusual debate, and one that has been often discussed in travel photography. I didn't know Jim Zuckerman, but from his biography he's a well known photographer whose work has appeared in scores of magazines, and leads photo tours in many parts of the world. It goes almost without saying that he would make sure that he (and his clients if on a photo trip) will be able to "bag" the photographs he's after...since nothing is guaranteed in life, he just makes it possible by paying money and setting the shots.

Marc-André Pauzé, in contrast, is a photojournalist whose work ethic is against paying to set up photo shoots and opportunities. He and his peers are documentary photographers, and setting up photographs is anathema to them.

Zuckerman and Pauzé come from different corners...their market is different, and their clients seek different products. Photographers who are more commercial will set up photo shoots, use reflective umbrellas, master strobes and flashes...etc., while the latter in the photojournalism corner will use a camera, a couple of lenses and develop a relationship with his subjects, but not pay.

As Marc-André writes in his final comment: "Travel photography, as photojournalism and street photography is not staged. It is about Life."

I agree. Staging photo shoots robs reality, but I'm reasonably flexible on my own photo~expeditions to accept that staging is occasionally either better (depending on the subject matter) or the only alternative. In contrast with Jim Zuckerman, I don't really have a list of preconceived images because it would stifle my creativity and may make me not see other opportunities. My photo~expeditions single most important description is "where travel photography meets photojournalism"...and I believe it's the right one.

However, when I walk in a village in Gujarat, I'm prepared for the eventuality that staging a few photo shoots will be needed if these don't happen serendipitously. Do I like staging photographs? No, I don't....but on occasions I have no other good options. And I'd rather return with some lovely staged photographs than none.

Another important point: would I ever claim that a staged photograph isn't? No, I wouldn't...and that's an important work ethic. We have seen photojournalists breaking this work ethic rule win awards and grants, and frequently getting caught and exposed for what they are....frauds. As far as well known travel photographers as concerned, Jim Zuckerman is far from being the only one who stages photo shoots...most of them do, and their clients seem to expect it.

If you've read that far down, here's the reason I used a Gujarati doll photograph to illustrate this post: subjects in staged photos sometimes look like the doll...inanimate and lifeless!