by Zave Smith
Yes, I said. Sounds like fun. I then hung up the phone and asked myself, “How are you going to pull this one off?”
This is often the commercial photographers plight. We are asked to do something we have never done before, we tell the client no problem and then we go off and panic.
How hard could this one be? This was a series of 8 portraits, shot on white seamless in a conference room. All we had to do is lug a lot of gear and have enough time to set up a studio set in a place that is not designed to be a studio.
Portraiture for me, even commercial portraiture, is a combination of the technical and the spiritual. Technical because you have to get the lighting right, you have to get the set, the props (if any), and the clothing right. You need to use these things to pull the eye into the picture and give clues about the subject. You also need to connect on a more spiritual level with your subject. Without that connection you have a likeness, not a portrait.
A good portraitist often has the gift of gab. I can talk to anybody about almost anything, least for a short while. I love listening to peoples stories. When people talk about themselves, they often let down their guard. It is this, unguarded self, that I am looking for.
The challenge in this project was communicating with kids and young adults that struggled to communicate. My subjects for this project were the athletes of the New Jersey Special Olympics. They were not only limited in their functioning but five of the eight were just kids, one as young as four. These were not subjects that were going to be enamored with my wit and witticism. They were not going to be taken in by my lawyer and doctor jokes. Some of these subjects were barely able to follow basic directions and three of them could not use language. Yet, it was my job to get them into poses that fit the layouts, to be relaxed and to have them to reveal a bit of their authentic selves in order to make these ads inviting and believable.
Photography is often like bumper cars. You try something and if it works you pass they next guy up and go around the circle. If your method leads you into a jam, you take your whiplash and try a different path. With this project, instead of leading my subject with words I had use show and mimic. When that did not work, I turned my set into a game like bouncing a ball for the young boy to catch, just where I needed him. Instead of satire, I used fart jokes.
This is why I love being a photographer. Each day is different. Almost every job poses a new and unique challenge. I have photographed the uptight and the short-tempered, the hurried doctor and the diva model. I have photographed blind teenagers, and kids with cancers. Until now, I had never worked with subjects who were developmentally disabled or with Down syndrome. It was a challenge and it was an honor.
Client: New Jersey Special Olympics
Creative Director: Doug Rockhill
Producer: George Watson.