What Are You Really Photographing?

A group photo of some softball players.
A group photo of some softball players.

My job as a newspaper and magazine photographer is to record and express the lives and times of my community. When I am working in the field, I get a lot of requests, and one I get all the time is for group photos.

The group photo is, in some ways, the refuge of the uncreative and unimaginative, since it is, after all, the easiest photograph to make of an event. People are trained like sheep to lock their knees and grin like zombies, and they are trained like that from the time they can walk.

But what does the group photo really show? Simply, a group photo is a photograph of people posing for a photograph. I know that sounds ridiculous, but it is absolutely true. Group photos don’t convey to the viewer anything useful about the situation.

In the news business, we call the opposite of a group photo a “feature” photo, meaning an image that shows what is actually going on. Ideally, we photographers stay in the background and let the action of what’s going on happen without becoming a part of it. Sometimes we get noticed and become part of what’s going on, which does interfere with the candid nature of the event, but we are not invisible or camouflaged, so we are bound to get noticed. Worst of all, of course, is when the action of a spontaneous moment gets ground to a halt by a photographer who deliberately says to the subjects, “Look at the camera!” or “Smile for a picture.” Those pictures don’t give the viewer a picture of the moment.

Yet this phenomenon is worse than ever before, exacerbated by people with cameras (and by that I mean everyone) who are NOT people with talent or training in capturing the moment. If they don’t stop the moment for their own camera, they often insist on doing it on my behalf, at which point is an awkward moment when I really have no choice but to snap the lame, derivative, completely predicable and emotionless group photo.

In the photo at the top  left of this entry, we see a team that just won a trophy. District, regional, conference, whatever. It doesn’t matter, since the district championship group photo looks exactly the same as the national championship group photo. In the photo below, you can easily see that the same softball team has just won the game of their lives.

Moments earlier, those same softball players won a state championship game, as illustrated by this image.
Moments earlier, those same softball players won a state championship game, as illustrated by this image.
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2 Comments

  1. 100% agreement. It’s even worse at family reunions. “Oh, let’s get all the Crews sisters together.” … “Line up in order of age.” And so on.

    I didn’t even bring my camera to the last family function I attended, because of the requests for group photos.

    (One “devil’s advocate” comment regarding the newspaper: Though your second image is clearly more indicative of the emotion and activity of the event, required more ability on your part, and is only captured a handful of times, it’s just sadly true that more readers of the newspaper will clip out and save the first image. One has two daughters/sisters/nieces depicted, while the other has more than 20. 🙂

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  2. About the last comment: yes, 20 people instead of 2 will clip the group photo, but so what? Our circulation isn’t 20, it’s 9000, and a good newspaper tries to tell its readers, all of its readers, what happened, not bore them with lifeless images.

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