I recently photographed University of Minnesota students for the “It Ends Here” sexual assault prevention and awareness campaign that focused on bystander intervention techniques. It was important that I create photographs that felt honest and real. This project also held personal significance, as my wife is a graduate of U of M and my daughter, who assisted me on these shoots, is attending next year.
For the estimate, the University of Minnesota sent layouts. These were computer-generated sketches that had been pieced together with a mix of scrap imagery over gradated backgrounds. These drawings weren’t necessarily photo realistic, but they conveyed the feeling that the university was looking for. It was up to me to figure out how to create portraits in the studio with similar mood and intensity. The first thing I needed to figure out was what type of light would work best for an intimate portrait of 3-4 students. We were dealing with serious subject matter, and it was very important that the finished photographs felt completely honest and real. So that meant I couldn’t plan on lighting the subjects individually, and compositing them together in post. The final images were going to be posters, plastered around the university, and they needed to feel authentic if we wanted the public awareness campaign to work.
The subjects were actual students, wearing their own clothes. So there was some trepidation as to how this was all going to come together, ie: How would I arrange the composition, light the subjects, and control the expressions on their faces? I couldn’t expect the students to compose the image for me. Nor could I tell them how to look and act regarding such an important topic. After all, their friends would be seeing these posters in the hallways between classes. These photographs had to be real. One of my favorite things about being a portrait photographer is letting a shot unfold, and discovering how someone reacts to being photographed. Oftentimes, a big part of my job is being a coach; helping people open up in front of the camera to look like their best selves.
My daughter Lucy is a senior in high school, and she loves photography and film. She’s planning to attend the University next year, so this seemed like a great opportunity for her to be involved in a photo shoot on campus. But it also felt like an important moment in the evolution of student life, and I was interested in not only getting her help with the project, but also getting her feedback on my approach to photographing the students. Like most of my assistants, we spend lots of time together making pictures, driving around, and talking about current events. It was valuable for me to get her input, and she enjoyed working on a project that might still be hanging in the halls when she arrives at college next fall.
Another challenge was the gradated backdrop. It was very subtle, and I had to decide which color and size seamless backdrop would work best. Even though it almost looks black in the layout, I decided to work with a medium gray. My reasoning was that it would be easier to darken the lighter backdrop by reducing the amount of light on it than it would be to brighten a roll of super dark seamless.
The primary function of the campaign was to raise student awareness regarding sexual misconduct on campus. In a world full of imagery competing for their attention, our goal was to get students to notice the posters on campus, identify with the students in the photographs, and read the copy (steps on how to respond to sexual harassment). 50,000 students attend the University of Minnesota, so getting noticed takes effort. My niece is a graduate student there, and she told me that she saw the posters all over the place and that her friends were talking about them.
Assistants: Mathew McIntosh, Lucy Bowman