Tips & Techniques » Photojournalism and Documentation of an Alternative Culture
Let's discuss photographically documenting and recording a unique subculture. This has been one of the primary functions of our magic little boxes for generations. Right from the beginning the photographic document was viewed as a source of evidence - in a sense a visual truth.
Practitioners of the documentary style of photography are for many of us shooters both heroes and inspirations. Larry Clark capturing the world of the drug crazed teens he grew up around in Tulsa. Or Robert Frank, an immigrant from Sweden, displaying the entirety of the United States as a subculture in his visionary The Americans.
So how would you go about recording a subculture that interests you but one with which you are not so familiar?
Let's go there together.
What Is A Subculture - Identifying your target
For purposes of this discussion, a subculture is any group of individuals bound together by visual and social rituals that separate them from the surrounding cultures. For photographic purposes I'm not interested in certain intellectual subcultures (such as gamers who sit at home in shorts and t-shirts) but those that manifest themselves visually, such as Rockabillies or Shriners or Roller Derby teams. A subculture does not have to be edgy or strange (though it doesn't hurt), it might even be a car club that's feeling the love for the classically under appreciated Gremlin.
For me, the litmus test is simple - do they take it home with them? Do they live that subculture every moment?
|Garage Rockers-though the T-shirts may carry different messages and the shorts ride higher or lower, I look for a subculture with distinct visual elements that compliment the culture that they embrace.|
The Search For A Subculture - Conducting research
I have been frustrated by the homogenization of our visual landscape of late.
Where's the fun in a the world when your average hip-hop citizen wears a T-shirt, sneakers and shorts as opposed the garage band drummer who wear a T-shirt, sneakers and shorts, not so easily separated from the Trekkie found in a T-shirt... you know.
Not so long ago I noticed that Roller Derby girls seemed to possess staying power and at first glance seemed to have the attributes of a subculture--so I decided to investigate.
|First contacts can be made at a public event. Don’t be rude or intrusive, and if someone doesn't want to be photographed respect that. Soon enough you'll be beating them away with a stick; there will be many times where the subjects will pose for you or ask you to take their photo!|
Initial Contact - Learning to shoot from without the circle
If you know somebody or know somebody who knows somebody, that is likely the best first step. If not, your first step is the Internet. Learn about the subculture that you are interested in. Separate the rumors from the facts so you don't alienate someone right away by saying something foolish. As a matter of fact, like any good investigator, generally it is a good idea to mostly keep quiet and listen. Find a way to become small and unobtrusive.
Either through your Internet research or from the weekly paper or posters try and find a public event where you can first observe and engage the culture.
In the case of Roller Derby I simply went to a match.
First Shoot - Assigning yourself a task
Decide what the look of the images is going to be and then stay consistent.
If you are shooting in black and white, don't have the camera set to color and figure that you will change it on the computer. Fixing it in the mix is usually not the best path either. If that is the desired selection you should be visualizing the world in black and white as that is how you are photographing it. Even then, many current digital cameras retain color information and it can be retrieved later if necessary.
Do you want to use a flash or natural light? A flash gives images a distinct look and if most of the images are going to be indoors or at night it is likely the way to go. I went with natural light and pushed the ISO. It is best to set your camera on Manual and find your exposure rather than trusting a machine that might not even like you. Experiment with the low-light capabilities of your camera and see to what extent you can push the exposure before the file is unusable. When I felt I had to use a flash, I went to my flash options and adjusted the camera to use the flash at -3 so that the bulk of the image was saturated primarily with ambient light.
The important thing is consistency in the body of work. That and taking chances and making mistakes.
Then shoot, shoot and shoot some more-remember, you don't have to pay for film.
When you are there try and make a contact within the group. Let them know you will bring them prints to view the next time and do not space out on that. This is your chance to get your foot in the door.
|Enter into the world of your subjects--start to figure out who the characters are who motivate the action so you can concentrate on them.|
When you next encounter these folks bring prints, and lots of them. They don't have to be large but they must be free. If your subjects live in a world that is unusual you can be sure that they are being photographed in one way or another. You can also be pretty sure that nobody else gives them free copies of their pictures.
Once they know you are willing to put in some effort and are in a sense a REAL photographer, people tend to get friendly fast.
Now there are always layers and cliques inside a subculture. If you can perceive a vehicle to ride this wave, I think that is a good way to go. It is like a protagonist in a novel, one whose point of view can inform the reader's point of view. You do want to have a point of view.
I chose one of the Roller Derby teams and went to the practice with my prints. I was then able to start discerning the different characters that motivated the society of Derby World.
|Traveling with the pack, you start to be on the inside of the action... just don't get in the way physically or culturally.|
Be A Presence - Learn how to be unseen but recognized
Now that you have found your way in, try to become a consistent presence. Go to the events and photograph as much as you can. You are now sort of a semi-member and people will play to you. It is part of your job to make them familiar enough with your presence that they will act naturally around you. That is one reason to be constantly snapping. Posing all the time will wear thin and you will start to get images that reflect what you would observe if you were simply hanging out.
Be yourself; don't unnaturally try to dress or talk like your subjects. Unless it is a manner you would adopt anyway it can come off as forced and insulting. I went with the Roller Derby team to their next match and was able to start to intuitively anticipate an image opportunity. Try and get a feeling for when it's time to leave, that way there will be another day. And always leave them wanting you to come back.
|The women I met in the Burlesque subculture truly lived it. This is part of what powers the shooter in observing and documenting a subculture.|
Take It Home
In a real subculture the participants live, eat, breathe and sleep the life. It is not a costume they don. Once you get to know your subjects, try to meet up with them when they engage in other activities. This could be at parties or a right of passage such as a wedding. Often the homes of people within a subculture abound with visual icons.
I found that the Roller Derby women I was photographing tended to identify more with their day jobs. They found their identities in their 'normal' lives for the most part. As such the ride around the ring was a short one for me.
C'est la vie.