Thursday morning began as every morning begins — I awoke in a strange room, unaware of who I am or how I arrived there. Through perseverance of will, I began to piece together certain clues — eventually determining that this was my own bedroom in my own condo, and that I was exactly the same guy I was yesterday, and the day before that, and the day before that. By rote of muscle memory, I stumbled into the kitchen, ground the coffee beans, filled the Technivorm with fresh water, and switched it on — fixated on each drip that filled the “Carafe Of Life” with the rich brown molecules demanded by the voices in my head. After consuming the first bucket of beverage, I turned to the Macintosh to see what the morning email brought. And that’s where Thursday morning diverged from other mornings.

My inbox contained a request to photograph an event that would begin in an hour and a half. The freshly caffeinated synapses in my mind were now easily capable of performing the math. “Let’s see,” I thought. “Thirty minutes to shave, shower and dress. Plus thirty minutes to walk to the event. Factor in an arrival time fifteen minutes before the event to discuss, exactly, what the client requires. Carry the three and multiply by the square root of seven and… I have exactly 15 minutes to gather and pack my camera gear!”

Now fueled by a potent mixture of both caffeine and adrenaline, I hurriedly grabbed a backpack. I knew nothing about what I would be photographing nor the conditions under which the shoot would occur. So I tossed in a heap of seemingly disparate gear — a wide lens, a portrait lens, a long lens, a couple camera bodies, a flash, a stand, a shoot-through umbrella, and a bevy of storage cards, batteries, gels, filters, and assorted other bits.

Upon arriving at the event, I quickly discovered I could have left the flash equipment at home. The meeting room’s ceiling floated 10 meters above my head, effectively eliminating it as a source of bounce. The room’s walls were swathed in an ostentatious yellowy paper that cast a sickly beige hue upon every object in the room. To eliminate the tawny tint, I would need to blast my victims… err, I mean “subjects,” with quasi-nuclear flash — effectively killing any and all ambient light. Not only would that be intrusive to the conference, but it would violate my own aesthetic values. So the flash stayed in the bag.

There were numerous round tables, set for dining, and spread throughout the room. That fact — plus the long white table adorned with sandwiches, salads, soup, and fruits — were my first hints that this was a luncheon. The final piece of evidence came from the event planner himself who, having spotted me crouched in a corner, said “we’ll be serving lunch.” Thus ferreted out of my hiding place, I could no longer entertain thoughts of escape. So I asked him what type of event this would be, and what type of shots he’d like. He said it was an exchange of ideas — people talking about the problems in their particular industry and how they go about solving them.

Hmm. So my assignment is to photograph “people exchanging ideas?” No problem. I can wing this.

My first thought was to try shooting wide — including as many participants as possible in the frame. It wasn’t a bad concept conceptually, but there was a problem with its execution. Since this was a lunch event, someone in the discussion group would inevitably be eating. Group photographs in which at least one person is chewing do not, ultimately, say “discourse.”

So I tried another tactic: I would frame tightly on either someone speaking or someone listening. Filling the frame with a single person would prevent me from accidentally photographing somebody in mid-chew. This worked, but it also didn’t really say “discourse.” After all, a photo of someone talking (or listening) doesn’t tell the whole story — only half. You can see this in the photos below — they might be nice candid ‘portraits,’ but they don’t suggest an exchange of information.

So I started shooting people in profile, pulling back to the point where I could see two conversationalists in the frame. I now had a photo that said “discourse,” but it was lacking something. Specifically, shooting conversations in profile obscured the passion and intensity of the participants. It also disconnected the viewer from the conversation, as if one were eavesdropping on a discussion rather than participating in it.

And that’s when it hit me: Use a narrow depth-of-field, and shoot one of the participants directly — but make sure to include at least a piece of the other participant(s). In this way, I could show the earnestness of either the speaker or listener, but still convey they’re involved in a discourse with one or more people. There is no need to actually focus on the features of any secondary participants, nor is there any actual need to show their faces — they serve merely to indicate that a conversation is occurring. Below are just a couple of examples:

The idea worked perfectly. I captured a series of photos that expressed “people exchanging ideas,” which is exactly what the event organizer had hoped to see. I returned home that afternoon, processed several of the images, and went to bed satisfied with my abilities as a photographer — happy that my reactive method of photography (as discussed in “Of Glass Cacophonies”) had succeeded once more.

On Friday morning, I again awoke in a strange room, unaware of who I am or how I arrived there…

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©2009 grEGORy simpson
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