Moving Ahead on a Photo Assignment

Posted by Donna Rouviere Anderson March 31, 2015

Most good photo assignments relate in some way to a broader social theme. This photo, taken by Forrest Anderson at a factory in Taiyuan, China, is one of many he has taken that illustrate China's attempts to employ its large population.

Once a client has answered all of your relevant questions about an assignment shoot, it’s time for you to evaluate whether you want to do it and if so, how best you can do it.  While it’s tempting to accept every assignment that comes your way, grab your gear and run out and shoot it,  there are compelling reasons to have a heart to heart with yourself before you notify the client that you will do an assignment and discuss how best to do it.  It is well worth answering these questions as you consider any photo assignment:

  • What are the benefits plus the costs associated with doing the project?  When you ask yourself this question, it becomes easy to eliminate bottom feeder clients who don’t pay well enough to make it worth your time, have assignments that make you want to drag your feet as you head for them, don’t pay on time or represent other significant drawbacks. From there, you can concentrate on doing a shoot that will meet and exceed your good clients' expectations and needs. 
  • Does the project as defined really meet the client's needs? Most clients aren’t photographers and they often have misguided or unrealistic expectations about photography. It’s a good idea to do a reality check and perhaps go back to the client if you think the project carries major risks of not meeting their needs or if you have some better ideas to make it do so. In working in Beijing for Time Magazine and other publications for a decade, we were very proactive in doing this, making suggestions that could improve the final product. Most editors we worked with were very open minded and about half of the time, such discussions opened the way for a much better shoot than had originally been envisioned. 
  • Are other projects under way that have or address similar needs, create photos that the current project will need, or use the same resources as this assignment? Often, consulting with the client about this question or considering how you could later reuse the photos or stay another day in the same location at your own expense and shoot for another client or for your own projects can double or triple the value of an assignment shoot. While you should never double shoot an assignment for more than one client at a time or shoot for two competing clients during the same trip, you can often stay extra days and shoot for other noncompeting projects,  We made a point of looking at our photos as communicating broad social themes, so that if a client asked if we could tackle the issue of employment, for example, and suggested we go to a job fair to take pictures, we could also suggest other photos that more deeply illustrated the problem of unemployment in China. The photo above and the one below are examples of ways in which we tackled illustrating the perennial problem of employing billions of people. 

This photo of a carpenter with his tools, his cat balanced on them, humanizes the whole issue of work. 

This photograph of a steel worker at a factory that was polluting the air brings to light other factors that affect the employment picture, such as trying to employ people while at the same time avoiding factory pollution. 

This photograph of a farmer who found his income to be much lower than fellow villagers who had left the land for construction and factory jobs in urban areas illustrates the dislocation that the search for employment can cause. 

This photograph of an unemployed man with a paper stating his skills encapsulates the despair and idleness that unemployment creates in individuals' lives. Taking the time to think more deeply about the meaning behind photo assignments creates much more meaningful pictures to illustrate abstract ideas. 

  •  How does this shoot relate to our and our client’s top priorities - long range and short range? Revise it to make it relate more closely if necessary. If an assignment is not helping you accomplish your and your clients’ top priorities, often it can be revised to meet the client’s needs better while aligning with other goals you have. If you are asked to shoot some pictures at a well-known venue, you may also be able to take pictures that fit within your long-term priorities of doing professional architectural photography. On the other hand, if the assignment is way outside of the direction you want your career to go, you may be better served by turning it down. We decided early on that we did not want to do wedding photography. There’s nothing wrong with the wedding photography genre, of course, but we decided that dealing with the down side of the wedding industry – brides and grooms who run short of cash to pay promptly, mothers-in-law with double chins who want us to make them magically disappear, divorced families whose tensions run high during a wedding shoot and tend to take their differences out on the photographer, soused guests and working every weekend wasn’t the direction we wanted to take our career. For us, it was a great decision because it freed us up to do the kind of work we do enjoy and thus could become really skilled at.
  • Sometimes, there’s nothing wrong with a shoot but you have a better opportunity somewhere else. Generally, when we have gone with our gut and taken the better opportunity, the other one has fizzled out and we were glad we did. When we’ve gone against our gut feelings, we’ve regretted that we didn’t go with the better opportunity.
  • Consider past strategies that have worked. Insert past or similar ideas to predict the structure and movement of the shoot. This is particularly important when shooting fast moving events such as sports or political events, but developing clear repeatable patterns for successfully photographing everything from factories to landmark buildings takes a great deal of the stress, bumbling and failure factor out of a shoot. More on this topic on this blog later.
  • Ponder for a few minutes about the basic truths involved in this shoot. What will it say when it is published? Is that message honest and consistent with your value system? For example, we don’t smoke, so accepting an advertising photography assignment from a tobacco company wouldn’t be in line with our value system no matter how we sliced it. On the other hand, an editorial assignment about the health problems related to smoking would be in line with our values. If you have doubts about an assignment for any reason, can you craft it so it will work for you? If not, now is the time to back out. If so, move ahead and make a preliminary decision to do the shoot.

Now quickly define the basic steps needed to make the shoot happen and make sure you can do them. 

 Define any restrictions others will place on the results.

Identify unknowns and decide what assumptions you will need to make regarding the assignment.

Once you have gone through this process, you are ready to contact the client and either tell them you will pass on the shoot or have an intelligent and proactive discussion about any concerns or questions you have before shooting it.