Friday, 16 June 2017

Hotel Photography : Using Staff As Models

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy - All Rights Reserved
I had the pleasure to be asked to photograph the fabulous Mandarin Hotel Kuala Lumpur (MOKL) during the Travel Photographer Society events in Malaysia a few weeks ago, and having spent the better part of day doing so, I can vouch that hotel photography is most certainly not as easy as it may appear to be.

Having the DNA of a travel-documentary photographer meant that I sought to have people in most -if not all- of my photographs. I recalled a ad campaign by Annie Leibovitz for The Peninsula Hotel (Hong Kong and New York City) some years ago, in which she produced monochrome photographs of the hotel's staff, and it was hailed as a huge success in the hospitality industry. That was to be my inspiration, and I determined I'd produce both color and monochrome versions of my images and leave it to the hotel's managerial staff to decide which to use.

There are innumerable photographers who specialize in producing stunning work of the hotel industry, with views of gorgeous interiors and exteriors, fabulous rooms and suites and more for hotels and resorts; whether 5-star properties, boutiques, and other categories. However, my view is that hotels' staff are as important as the facilities, and having their portraits add a "human touch" to otherwise "dry" productions. 

I sought to produce images that showed the warmth and hospitality of the hotel's staff whilst performing their duties, and eschewing photographs that highlight the rooms' bed linen thread count, views of the Petronas Towers or many of MOKL's other facilities and amenities. 

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
In common with photographers who travel on assignments, on workshops and/or to give talks, I've experienced the gamut of hotel accommodations ranging from dingy hotels with dodgy bathrooms to small boutique establishments to some of the most luxurious five-star hotels in the world...such as the Mandarin Hotel and the Shangri-La. What stays with me are not necessarily the good memories of lush bathrobes and of creamy shampoos (although that helps), or the bad memories of tepid shower water....but the hospitality and the "service-with-a-smile" of the hotel staff. That was my intention in focusing my MOKL assignment mostly on its staff, and have them as 'models' to convey the welcome which is experienced by its guests.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
The option to produce photographs of hotel staff is an easier one than to photographing its interior and exterior spaces. For exterior images, one requires an architectural approach, tilt-shift lenses and perfect natural light/time of day. For the images of the rooms and interior spaces, one would need wide angle lenses, tripods, soft lighting and a room stylist to ensure there were no errant electric cords, imperfectly made bed corners, slightly askew towels in the bathroom, bathroom amenities that were not perfectly aligned...or even light bulbs of different these would be amplified in still photographs.

Having the staff re-enact their duties is much more simple, is faster, more enjoyable and (provided one chooses the right staff members) is effective when coupled with the static interior and exterior images.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
There's also an advantage when using this "photojournalism" style for hotels. Potential guests (or any consumer for that matter) can immediately recognize "authenticity" when they see it. When I first log on to a hotel's website, I check out the photographs of its rooms and bathrooms to satisfy myself that they are worth the money (or not) I am about to expend to stay there.

However, I also realize that these are produced by experienced photographers usually using room stylists, wide lenses, special lighting and other post processing tools to show these spaces in the best way possible. So the reality might not always meet my expectations.

I then check whether there are images of the staff on the hotel(s) website, and if available, these give me an idea as to the human element so critical in the hotel industry. Starched-looking staff, standing like mannequins in front of a reception desk, do not impart the warmth I would like to experience from a hotel....particularly as my hotel stays often exceed 10-15 nights. Applying this logic to my hotel photo shoots means that I must choose the staff as carefully as I possibly can, and pick those who are not only are photogenic, but who radiate a sort of inner warmth that can influence those potential guests, and tell them they'll be warmly welcomed and treated.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
As much as possible, I try to photograph the staff as they are; in their element without embellishment, ambient light and without setting up a specific location or using any props. In most of my hotel photography, I engage the staff but direct them as little as possible and let them work as they normally do...and when I see a moment or two that I like, the shutter is clicked.

I am grateful to Ms Akiko Goto of the Mandarin Oriental Kuala Lumpur for having facilitated my access to various areas of the hotel, and for her patience.