Pose With a Purpose

If there is one thing that news photographers hate, it is the “cheese” photo.

You know the one: Turn this way! Big smiles! (*click!*) Everyone is staring at the camera, maybe someone is holding an award, or kids are giving each other bunny ears.

No matter who’s in the frame, it’s something news photographers are taught not to do from the very beginning. You don’t pose photos. It’s unreal. It’s unethical. You can’t be a fly on the wall and capture the reality of the moment if everyone is mugging for the camera.

And those are all rules that news photographers should abide by. The photographer should be invisible – there to immortalize something in an instant of time. Look no further than this AP photo from Kashmir:

APTOPIX India Kashmir Funeral

AP Photo/Dar Yasin

That was a moment that actually happened; it didn’t occur because the photographer said: “hey, scream into the air, it’ll make a cool shot!”

That’s the rule photographers are taught: if you want the photos to be real, don’t pose them.

But like all rules, there are exceptions.

Some of the top photographers and reporters know that everything they do is storytelling. Everything they write, every photo they shoot, every layout they design – they are all intended to tell the story.

And believe it or not, some stories excel with posed photos. You just need to do it the right way.

The first thing to keep in mind is that there are some stories that cannot use posed photos. Covering breaking news, an event, a game; anything were something is happening should have photos that capture those moments. Get the game winning shot, get the group of kids laughing, get the politician staring down a debate opponent.

The stories that can be enhanced with posed photos are feature stories – profiles on a person or group, or an in-depth look at a social topic. Let’s take a look at some examples:

The first from an Oregonian special report called “Our Homeless Crisis.” The reporters took a hard look at the issue of homelessness in Portland, the statistics, the plans to fix it, and the people enduring it.

Photographer Thomas Boyd took this shot of a man named Richard Crane, who was sleeping outdoors in Portland.

Homelessness in Portland

Source: Oregonian Photo/Thomas Boyd

This serves one of the main purposes of posed photos: humanizing someone. Crane may be someone we passed by on the street every day without ever noticing him. Now, photographer Boyd forces us to face the reality – we are looking directly into Crane’s face, seeing his brown eyes and his graying mustache. Thanks to this photo, Crane is not just another faceless transient; he’s a human being, someone we can relate to, and empathize with their struggles.

Next, let’s jump a few thousand miles east and take a look at a New York Times feature “Baptism by Fire: A New York Firefighter Confronts His First Test.”


Source: Damon Winter/The New York Times

There are hundreds of stories about firefighters printed in newspapers every day. The NYT decided to do something different – a personal look at a rookie firefighter and an up-close account of his first fire. The article has great photos of the fire itself, and of firefighters rushing in to save lives, but it was enhanced with posed photos of more quiet moments with firefighter Jordan Sullivan. Above, we saw another example of humanizing someone – perching the young firefighter on the front fender of the fire engine and seeing him smile in a less hectic moment.

But below, we see another example of the posed photos – details.

Source: Damon Winter/The New York Times

Source: Damon Winter/The New York Times

Here, photographer Damon Winter has put Sullivan in front of a red backdrop, so that it doesn’t distract from the details of Sullivan in his fire gear. We can see the smudge marks on the plexiglass of his helmet. We can see the dust flecks on his shoulder and the slight fraying of the coat seams. And again, we see his face and look into his eyes. This is a real firefighter; not just someone playing dress up.

These examples are good for longform feature stories, but what about the average, everyday stories we see in local newspapers? Posed photos can still work, if they are used in a way that illustrates a story without an obvious image.

The Albany Democrat-Herald wrote a piece about the debate over body cameras for police officers. The story doesn’t lend itself to very visual elements, because the cameras are small and won’t stand out in a photograph of a police officer wearing one. And by themselves, they just look like a small, plastic box – again, not very compelling. So photographer Andy Cripe took a different approach. He had an officer hold the camera in front of him, and focused his shot on the body camera in the foreground.

Source: Albany Democrat-Herald/Andy Cripe

Source: Albany Democrat-Herald/Andy Cripe

Now the photo achieves three things: it gives the detail of the camera itself, it gives a personal touch by showing the face of the officer, and it helps illustrate the story.

Above all else, a photographer needs to illustrate the story. Most of the time it will be in the form of a candid photograph, with a photographer acting like the invisible observer, capturing the moment. But when the situation calls for it, a photographer needs to put their skills to use to create an illustration, and sometimes it means posing things. Just make sure you hold the “cheese.”


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