Not Saying Cheese: When Collaborating Makes it Better

July 11, 2023  •  Leave a Comment

“Well, I’m appalled at that”, I said as I sipped my mug of decaf.  In the months since giving up all forms of caffeine, I’ve learned to recognise how tame that statement appears.   I’ve always been a hot-headed guy, but my substantial daily coffee intake previously made my fuse short and my blood pressure high at the slightest little thing.  On this particular day, I had been triggered by some research that I’d been doing, following a conversation with a lovely friend of mine called Sarah.  We had been talking about motorsport, as she and her husband Colin race vintage cars as a hobby.  More specifically, we were talking about women in motorsport and how they were treated by a culture largely dominated by men.  Sarah was bemoaning the fact that most depictions of women in motorsport were either draped, half-naked over a car or motorcycle, or austerely standing next to their man who had just raced his car with some degree of success or adulation.  It wasn’t that I was sceptical, more that I wanted to see the proof for myself and, sure enough, it’s absolutely true.  Society knows that there are plenty of incredibly talented, successful women racing drivers in the world, so why does it feel like we are stuck in the 1970s?  How do these depictions of women affect those who want to take up motorsport? Somehow, I cannot see it having a positive effect. 

Fast forward a couple of weeks, and Sarah and I are sitting in a café, discussing the extent of this rampant sexism and her personal experiences of it in her format of the sport.  I’d invited her because I’d had an idea for a collaborative portraiture project.  As part of the current module of my course, I’m looking at the variety of ways that photographers work with their subjects collaboratively, as opposed to the idea of the classical idea of ‘sitting for a portrait’.  Approaching a portraiture session in a collaborative way means just that both photographer and model bring their own ideas, often share directional responsibilities, and provide critical feedback on the resulting work.  If the portrait is representing the subject’s identity, they get to influence how that is done, which elements of their personality they prefer to emphasise, and so on. If the portrait is more about a cultural or personal experience, recalling memories can also affect how they choose to present themselves to the camera.  The photographer brings their creative eye of course, as well as the technical skills needed to make the photograph.  Collaboration can potentially the challenge them to relinquish some control over the work, as the person who ultimately exhibiting or publishing it.  Sound like potential organised chaos?  Well, not really.  There are a number of ways that photographers enter into a creative collaboration with their subjects, which depend on what the story is.  If, for example, work is a series of documentary-style portraits of a community, the photographer may work many people within it, having them act as ‘editors’ whose collective opinions might dynamically influence the direction of the work, in contrast to the original idea.  The photographer might also provide a group of people with point-and-shoot cameras, so that they can document their own ideas outside of the more formal shooting sessions to be incorporated in the final work.  Anything that introduces diversity in the work, challenges the initial assumptions that the photographer might have about the people or the nuances of their lives, is potentially a powerful thing.  A good example of this is Dana Lixenberg’s Imperial Courts project, shot in a neighbourhood of Los Angeles over a 22 year period from 1993 (link).  She worked with the community to challenge the mass media narrative of the area as a dangerous, gang-infested ghetto, in the aftermath of the Rodney King riots.  The resulting series documents the people over the place, showing their daily struggles, but strong sense of community at the same time.

In my collaboration, I wanted to work with Sarah to tell her story of being a woman who not only races a car that’s nearly 90 years old but does all of the maintenance and preparation work to get to the start line in the first place.   We agreed to go ahead, and I started by sending her a short list of notes and ideas that had occurred to me during our conversations.  This would be a starting point for her to consider how she wanted to represent herself.  Once the practicalities, such as deciding on ‘when and where’, what lighting to use etc were finalised, we were ready to go. 

On the day, I saw the beautiful 1930s MG for the first time and was struck by how beautiful this machine was. It was sitting in a garage surrounded by lots of items that we could use as visual context for the portraits, and my brain started buzzing with ideas.  That wasn’t what we were here for though, and it began to dawn on me that this wouldn’t be as easy for me as I first thought.   We were also fortunate to be joined by her husband Colin, who also races MGs.  It turned out that this car was actually his, with Sarah’s being garaged elsewhere.  We chose this one because, as well as containing those objects that might support the narrative, the garage had power for the lights.   I decided that I had plenty of technical work to do lighting this dark space, so while I rushed around setting up my studio gear, the three of us chatted about ideas.  Sarah talked about how she prepares for a race, everything from checking the fluids to adjusting her long hair so that she could put on her helmet. Colin could see different aspects in terms of placing Sarah in the frame with the car, which was because of his experiences both racing with her and biting his tongue at the frequently asked question “how did you get your wife into racing?”.  I really admire him for that second one.  When it came to the shoot, we experimented with composition and adjusting the lights as one would expect during a shoot.  It became much more collaborative when I gave them the remote trigger for the camera.  Sarah admitted being fairly intimidated by having control over this machine that was pointed straight at her, which is entirely understandable.  The camera inherently has power in the portrait scenario, which stems from its earliest days when the subject had to stay perfectly still and ‘be captured’.  How many times have we been in a social situation, and someone produces a camera, prompting us to feel the need to smile?  As the shoot progressed, Sarah became more comfortable, but was much more so when coming up with ideas for the compositions.  Colin had no such issues, as he was looking more intently at the scene and deciding when the shutter should be released.  Between the three of us, we captured a number of images over a few hours that we were all really happy with.  Here are a few of them.

For my course, I wanted to present a triptych (a fancy word for 3 pictures together), that I thought best reflected Sarah’s story.  To help with the selection, I asked my fellow students to pick their favourites, and of course, Sarah and Colin.  This was the result:

The Triptych

This experience was a new one for all of us.  They hadn’t appreciated what was involved in setting up the shoot, which I was glad to learn they were fascinated by.  For me, taking a step back from the creative process to be more of a technical manager of the camera, was a difficult thing to do, but rewarding.  I think this is a mixture of my control-freakery and my creative curiosity, the former being a pain in the arse and the latter something I try to feed every day.  The freedom to just try something with only an outline plan was wonderful, and I definitely attribute that to working with two very enthusiastic people who weren’t photographers.  We were careful not to make Sarah’s story a ‘new stereotype’, where a woman is depicted as covertly masculine in this scenario.  Instead, there is a passionate, yet undramatic feel to the pictures, which suggests racing as a hobby like any other; gender having nothing to do with it.  Sarah's love for her sport comes through unhindered.  I particularly liked the placement of the ‘men at work’ sign and Sarah’s racing bikes in the wider composition, for the contrasts that they bring as a challenge to any preconceptions the viewer might have.

It was a great experience all round and I cannot wait to collaborate with a subject again in the future.  “I have lots of crazy ideas that might make a good photograph”, says Sarah.  Perhaps then, it won’t be that long before I do.


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