As a newspaper photographer, I learned to tell stories in a linear, character-driven style, with a beginning, middle and end. These days, though, my assignment work is usually published on the web, where people want to see the point of the story quickly, so to deliver my clients’ messages I now approach storytelling with a stronger point of view, one that communicates in just a few pictures.
For over a year, I worked on a project for Borromeo Housing, a nonprofit organization in Arlington, Virginia, that provides support for young, single mothers. The women live in group homes or shared apartments with their children for as long as they remain in school and participate in the organization’s life skills and child-rearing programs. My assignment was to document the lives of these young women over an extended period and produce an essay showing how they cared for their children as they attended school and sought work; and to deliver that message quickly and effectively.
First I had to try to get staff, mothers and children completely used to and bored with my presence so they wouldn’t react to me. Then there was the challenge of dealing smoothly and unobtrusively with stressed teenagers who were trying to finish school while caring for their babies and coping with boyfriends and estranged families. And while I identified several mothers and children I thought made the best subjects, I had to photograph many other women as well.
The photography itself wasn’t as straightforwardly accomplished as I’d first thought it would be. On weekdays the women were in school and their children in daycare; the weekends were unpredictable, as many women went off with boyfriends, visited extended families or hung out with friends. And because I was older than the women, they saw me as a parent or counselor rather than someone to confide in or relax with, so hanging out with them never produced pictures that really satisfied me. It took weeks before I managed to build relationships with several women and began developing stories on their lives, documenting how the program was helping them.
The assignment took a turn when the organization asked me to make pictures that could be used for their annual fundraiser. When we agreed that portraits of the women and their children, all looking energetic and engaged, would work best, I switched from documentary-style coverage to portraiture, and when Mother’s Day came and the moms got dressed up and the children cooperated, I was able to create a wonderful portrait series.
Then the organization’s director and I discussed a slide show, a photo exhibit and multimedia essays. I started to collect interviews, ambient sound and video for a multimedia show that incorporated the Mother’s Day portraits and served as the fundraiser’s centerpiece.
For me the project underscored the value of flexibility in today’s market as well as the need to be prepared to work in a variety of styles and media—all the while keeping the client’s needs in mind and focusing on what will best appeal to audiences confronted with ever-growing demands for their attention.