I took a documentary/news photography class this semester at City College of San Francisco. The topic for our semester-long project was to photographically document "community," which could be defined by a neighborhood or a group of people. I chose to document the dog adoption community at the San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, where I also volunteer. Specifically, I focused on the volunteers and staff who work with the dogs at the Mission campus. I photographed almost every week from the end of January to mid-April. I presented my final photos this past week to my class. The project gave me a good taste of what being a documentary photographer is like. It was extremely challenging and rewarding.
Getting out the door. Ken Light, the class instructor (and lucky for us, a renowned social documentary photographer) says, "The hardest part is getting out the door..." day after day, week after week, to photograph a story. Part of this is motivation and the other part, particularly as it draws out, is the danger of burning out. Although staying home was tempting with its many distractions, whenever I had free time, I would head to the SPCA--out of fear that I would be missing photo opps, and that I wouldn't have enough material for my final project. Procrastination favors no project, documentary photography or not. Towards the end of the semester, I could feel myself burning out. My solution was to go home during spring break, which eliminated the option of going to the SPCA for a week. Instead I focused on other photography projects like this website, and on editing the photos I had so far for this project. Fortunately, I had a hard stop for this project--the end of the semester presentation. For professional documentary photographers a project does not necessarily have a time frame or deadline. It can last for years....
Figuring out what the story is. And how do I want to "tell" it visually? Will what I photograph convey what I hope/intend?
Upping my technical and artistic photography skills. Shooting documentary photography is different than shooting events, still life, or portraits, although it can incorporate these styles. My takeaway from this experience is that a strong documentary photograph makes the viewer stop and think, and conveys its message without hitting you over the head. Photographing moving dogs and people together in a confined space with a mixture of lighting sources, was new for me.
Editing and selecting the final photographs. I took more than 4,000 photos. Less than half were acceptable. Half of those were good photographs but not necessarily for my documentary project. Of those that were documentary-worthy, I could only present 15. Roughly, that's about one good shot for each week of this project. In terms of editing, I cropped a lot of photos to make them stronger and more interesting, which in itself was a great learning experience. Sequencing was difficult. What order do I present the photos? Are there patterns and types of photos that are similar? How many dynamic shots? Sophisticated shots? Verticals vs horizontals? This is probably the second biggest challenge of being a photographer. Learning to edit one's own work well and as objectively as possible is a difficult and good skill to have. Editing also takes a lot of time.
Making mistakes and taking risks. With my photography and with people. Pushing myself to take photos in different ways--angles, perspectives, settings. Approaching people and situations to photograph. Getting closer to the subject(s), even if it felt like I was crossing the unspoken personal space zone. Selecting final photos for my presentation was also about taking risks. I chose shots that Ken felt were "safe." I had considered slightly different photos, one of which I had on hand, and, of course, he liked that one better! As my photography coach, Daria, says, this is my time to take risks. In the classroom, I am in a safe environment. I was frustrated with myself for not taking more risks in my final presentation but it was all good learning.
Learning from all the challenges listed above. Seriously. The frustration, although not fun, is significant. It reminds me of how much farther I have to go to become the photographer I want to be. The best photographer I can be.
Learning more about just how awesome the SF SPCA is. I've drunk the kool-aid....I took a tour that the SPCA offers and found out about all the different programs it runs to achieve its mission "to save and protect animals, provide care and treatment, advocate for their welfare and enhance the human-animal bond." One of its educational programs is Puppy Movie Night! Alas, it is only for kids. Sigh.
Gaining a new community. While I expected to learn more about myself as a photographer, documentary photography, and the SPCA, in the course of doing this project, I discovered that I started to feel more connected to and a part of the SPCA community. The community that I was documenting, slowly became my community. I started volunteering at the SPCA less than a year ago. On my weekly two-hour shifts, I interacted mostly with dogs. My goal was to give as many dogs the attention they needed before I had to leave. Interacting with humans was secondary. In photographing this project, I intentionally took more time to talk with volunteers and staff to learn about their work at the SPCA, share about my project, and then shadow many of them. Now I walk into the SPCA and know more people than dogs--specifically, people with a shared passion for and love of dogs--and it's pretty awesome. It's also been fun to share the work I did with them and to present them with gift prints of nice portraits I took along the way.
While I need a bit of a break from this project, I will probably pick up my camera again to document more of the SF SPCA in the future. My project only captured a small part of their work. Additionally, continuing to practice documentary photography will challenge me to be a better photographer. In the meantime, I'm excited to get back to my regular volunteering at the SPCA and spend more time with both dogs and humans there. I took a hiatus while shooting this project.
Many, many thanks to:
- the SF SPCA staff and volunteers who gave me access to their work and shared their stories with me;
- Daria, my friend, and photography coach and angel, for her amazing support and generous help providing feedback on and editing my final photos; and
- Ken and CCSF for the class.