The cry of all the focus groups when they review most educational recruiting pieces seems to always say they want natural looking photos and not setup.
After having spent the last twenty plus years as a photographer shooting pure photojournalism, where you capture what happens in front of the camera to shooting for advertising pieces, where there are stylists arranging everything in a photo; my experience says most focus groups are asking the wrong questions.
“Do you like the photo?” is not as good of a question to see if the photo was successful as a question like “What did you learn from the photo?” You can even have a photo again on a questionnaire from your recruiting materials and ask, “Does the photo help you see what a typical dorm room looks like?” You could even have a follow up question “What could improve the photo to show you a dorm room?”
The reason I have come to this place about evaluating photos is my experience with truly “real” photographs. I have spent many years shooting “photojournalism” for magazines, newspapers and wire services. You do not change a thing in these photos and you do everything you can use composition, lens choices, lighting and timing to communicate the mood and reality of a situation.
Often a photojournalist’s photos are not “pretty” pictures. Photographers will even use their composition to create more conflict to add to the mood of the photo. Having a focus group evaluate war photos with the typical questions we ask “Did you like the photos?” will give you results which would say the photographers were not successful.
How can you know the right moment to take a picture unless you have a fairly clear idea of what the subject means and what you are after? When you are interested in a subject, you want to learn more about it. You dig below the surface values to the truth beneath. That way you get to know it intimately and are able to photograph it understandingly.
Understanding does not necessarily mean a technical knowledge of the subject. Understanding is interest, sympathy, curiosity, the human element of the equation.
While photojournalism will give you “real” photos, sometimes reality for recruiting will keep your institution on the same path rather than to where you would like to be.
This is where what I call the “sitcom” photography works best. We all know the sitcom isn’t real, but it can create such a reality we are all tuning in to see “Who shot JR?”
This is the type of photography where the school has determined where they want to go and then create communications pieces to help them attain the goal. For example if you want to be more diverse in the future, you will need to show diversity. If you keep it real, you would then research to find those situations where diversity exists already. Then you would photograph those situations and play them prominently in your piece.
As one person put it “You don’t want to be the lone raisin in a bowl of milk.” If everyone works to help the school to become more diverse it can be done.
As you can see there are a few ways to communicate your message using photographs. The ideal scenario is to have “reality” photos. If you had a photographer go to everything you did this year—then maybe you would get the reality you need.
Sometimes “reality” isn’t what you want to show. The student wearing another competing schools T-Shirt. A student with major over weight issues or skin problems can detract from the message. This is why so often we re-create reality like the sitcom. If properly planned, you will tune in and want to know more about your school.
Photographs are made of light, mood, texture, form, and line. The value of techniques lies in how they are used. Techniques by themselves are barren. To come alive with meaning, they must be employed interpretively. This is where I come in. Give me a call and let’s make your recruiting photos—REAL.