Accessing a less common point of view
In an earlier post, I suggested that good photographic technique and creativity were only part of what makes a good photo. Another key ingredient is access to interesting subject matter.
This can mean flying off to a distant corner of the globe to visit a remote Asian monastery. Or, often, it can be a subject much closer to home that the photographer has unique access to because of his or her job, family, or friendships. When you think about it, most people have access to something in their lives that other people don’t see, and this can make a good photographic subject. It can be something as seemingly mundane as an inside view of a factory or a farm or other place of work. Provided you’re allowed to take photos, it may be a chance to take something that most people don’t see, allowing you to present some unique images.
Many thousands of visitors to Ottawa visit Canada’s beautiful Parliament buildings every year, and many of them take pictures of the Centre Block and Peace Tower. It’s a beautiful view, and as long as their photographic technique is good, the picture will look good. Only a much smaller number will come away with unique-looking pictures as the result of creatively using a different point of view or technique to create an unusual photo. Very few, however, have access to much more at Parliament than the main public areas.
In my day-to-day work, I often see behind the scenes in Canada’s political process, and occasionally I’m allowed to take pictures.
I admire the photography of Ottawa photographer Jean-Marc Carisse, who I’ve met on several occasions. Carisse was photographer to such Canadian Prime Ministers as Pierre Trudeau and Jean Chrétien and he’s often photographed international leaders when they visited Ottawa or when Canadian leaders travelled. One of my favourite Carisse photos shows Chrétien and Bill Clinton playfully climbing a garden railing to give the media the slip. I know some of the regular news photographers were envious of Carisse’s access, which enabled him to get pictures that were not accessible to the media. Indeed, the title of Carisse’s coffee table book is Privileged Access with Trudeau, Turner and Chrétien. Carisse is a talented photographer, but his work owes much to that privileged access.
While I don’t have Carisse’s skills or the privileged access he once had, I’m occasionally called upon to take pictures of Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff at various events. Often these are public events where he’s delivering a speech at a poorly lit podium — hardly the kind of scene that lends itself to a Carisse-style photo.
Recently, on May 12, Mr. Ignatieff’s birthday, his wife and his staff organized a surprise birthday party for him at Stornoway, the official residence of the Leader of the Opposition. I was pleased to be asked to take photos at the party, and I had a lot of fun taking candid pictures of his staff socializing. When people are having fun, they are often more willing to be photographed, as long as they trust that you won’t embarrass them by using less-than-flattering pictures.
When the Leader arrived home with his wife, he was caught by surprise for the second year in a row. He was good natured about it, and spent a while socializing with staff and blowing out his birthday candles. But, this happened to be the night of the seventh and deciding hockey playoff game between the Montreal Canadiens and the Pittsburgh Penguins. And many of the guests were already watching the game on TV.
Mr. Ignatieff is well known as an intellectual, but it’s less known that he’s a rabid sports fan. Still wearing his suit, like his guests, he and his wife Zsuzsanna sat in front of the TV to cheer the Canadiens to their 5-2 victory. Bouncing my flash from the ceiling of the little room at the historic Stornoway house, I shot a few pictures of them engaged in the game. It was a chance to see a side of Mr. Ignatieff that the public doesn’t see.
One of those shots was used by Globe and Mail columnist Jane Taber in her blog. I have a long way to go before my photos can match those of someone like Carisse, but the experience was a lesson in the value of using uncommon access to get photos from an unusual point of view.