The cry of all the focus groups when they review most educational recruiting pieces seems always to say they want natural-looking photos and not set up.
After spending the last forty-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 picture 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 ask, “What could improve the photo to show you a dorm room?”
I have come to this place of evaluating photos because of my experience with indeed “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 do everything you can to 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 use their composition to create more conflict to add to the photo’s mood. Having a focus group evaluate war photos with the typical questions we ask, “Did you like the photos?” will give results that say the photographers were unsuccessful.
How can you know the right moment to take a picture unless you have a relatively clear idea of what the subject means and what you are trying to accomplish? When you are interested in a topic, you want to learn more about it. So you dig below the surface values to the truth beneath. That way, you get to know it intimately and can photograph it understandingly.
Understanding does not necessarily mean a technical knowledge of the subject. Instead, understanding is interest, sympathy, curiosity, and 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 where you would like to be.
Getting the photos you need is where what I call “sitcom” photography works best. Of course, 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?”
Staging is the type of photography where the school has determined where they want to go and created 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 will research to find those situations where diversity exists. Then you would photograph those situations and play them prominently in your piece.
As one person said, “You don’t want to be the lone raisin in a bowl of milk.” If everyone works to help, the school will become more diverse.
As you can see, there are a few ways to communicate your message using photographs. Of course, the ideal scenario is to have “real” photos. If you had a photographer go to everything you did this year, you might get the reality you need.
Sometimes “reality” isn’t what you want to show—the student wearing another competing school’s T-Shirt. In addition, a student with significant overweight or skin problems can detract from the message. Avoiding these distractions 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 about light, mood, texture, form, and line. Methods by themselves are barren. To come alive with meaning, they must be employed interpretively. Getting a trained professional photographer with educational recruiting experience is where I come in. Give me a call, and let’s make your recruiting photos—REAL.