This weekend, I had the privilege of shooting the dress rehearsal for a new show highlighting 40 years of activism through the arts, presented by San Francisco feminist and multi-cultural dance company, Dance Brigade. Their work was extremely powerful and moving. Not only was it artistically and technically astonishing, but the show was truly inspiring as a testament to the power of artists fighting for social justice. In the current era we need this power to be wielded widely and wisely to balance the widespread injustice all around us.
When shooting work as inspiring as this, I often choose less traditional and more creative approaches to presenting my images. In short, the medium should match the message, so when the message is as powerful as Dance Brigade’s performance, I believe the medium should rise to the occasion. So, in addition to making some traditional documentary images shot looking directly toward the performers with an eye toward capturing the obvious, I also strove to capture some different and unusual perspectives on the performance. I present some of them in the post with short descriptions of my intent for each image.
The usual rules for shooting a live indoor performance still apply. Gain permission to shoot in advance directly from the show’s producer. Use a fast lens and high ISO setting so as to be able to preserve a fast shutter speed to freeze action while still avoiding use of flash, which distracts performers and crew. Turn off your LCD display and check your images only when there’s a break in the action. Use the quietest shutter mode your camera supports. And never use a tripod or monopod unless you have explicit permission from the producer.
Wait for the telling moment: There are instants during live performances that distill the overall message down to its essence. Seek those moments. Buy this photo
Tell a story: Just as a good performance is designed to reveal key messages to the audience at the appropriate time, so should the photographer capture images that disclose the underlying narrative. This image of the climax from a piece on the plight of refugees captures the essence of the story. Buy this photo
Find an unusual perspective: When shooting behind-the-scenes such as at a dress rehearsal, you have the opportunity to find just the right combination of vantage point and lens to make your images really pop. This image was made from the lip of the stage. I had to lean forward across the front of the stage and shoot upward. I love this shot because it captures the artist from her eye level just at a decisive moment in the drama. Buy this photo
Document the power of the performance: This piece started quietly and worked up slowly to a frenzy of pent-up anger and activism. I found the best vantage point and waited for the perfect moment. Buy this photo
Know when to break the basic rules of composition: Sure, most of the time you want to avoid cutting a performer’s head off. But I saw the latent energy inherent in the unorthodox framing of this image. By shooting from the static artist’s level and capturing only part of the jumping artist’s body, I transformed the image into a bolder statement that supported the message of the piece. Buy this photo
Gain perspective: Not every image needs to include the whole environment. Sometimes it’s more powerful to capture just the salient part. Buy this photo
Capture a moment of pure joy: Shoot lots of images so that you can choose the ones that really make an impact. The bold colors, shallow depth-of-field, and simple composition of this image work to emphasize the dancer’s aura of joyful triumph. Buy this photo
Use black-and-white: This image cried out for me to convert it to monochrome. Its raw documentary power and gritty, graphic nature are more compelling in black-and-white. Buy this photo
Don’t be afraid to use selective focus: It’s okay for certain elements of your subject not to be in sharp focus. I chose a narrow depth-of-field in order to obtain selective focus on just the performers in the middle of this triumphant circle. The soft focus on the dancers in the foreground and far background only serve to enhance the dramatic power of the image. Buy this photo
I hope this essay provides some ideas for how to shoot creative images that amplify the power of your message. Modern digital photography provides us with so many tools for making images that go beyond the pure documentary function to also enchant our viewers with imagination. A performance as moving as Dance Brigade’s “Gracias a la Vida: Love in a Bitter Time” deserves more than a straightforward narrative capture. I tried to make some images that supported their messaging with a creative visual style. Continue to capture the obvious message in your images, but keep shooting to go beyond the documentary. Go wild, and see what you can achieve!
How do you go beyond the obvious to capture images that pop? Please share your ideas here?
Want to read more posts about what to shoot while traveling or near home? Find them all here: Posts on What to Shoot.