You know what’s going to be the hardest part of the project? Curating photographs and rejecting some work.
Because the collection has to be strong–it can’t just allow anything in. So, what’s in and what’s out?
Primarily, the photographs need to show people.
Engaged in their lives. Ordinary and extraordinary.
Work and play. Home and out. Family and friends.
Happy and sad. Easy and struggling. Exciting and boring.
Not so much scenery, posed photographs, or other ‘vacation-type’ shots. But documentary photographs that tell us about the people we are looking in on.
Environmental portraits, perhaps. People engaged in activities, work, play, events, celebrations, pageants, funerals, weddings, etc. Shot with a photojournalist’s eye. Objectively. Like a magazine story.
A photograph like this one gives us a sense of what teens look like in a Boulder suburb, how they dress, what they’re doing, are they on phones, how they’re sitting together.
The most common thing that photographers I meet are uncomfortable with is shooting people. I had a weekly assignment group for a while on Facebook, and I would put up various assignments, often people assignments, and the folks in the group would tell me how much difficulty they had with them. But several told me that they came to loving shooting people, and they had just never tried before, but the ‘assignment’ made it possible for them to start to approach people.
I don’t have any problem going up to people and asking to photograph them, but I was a newspaper photojournalist for 15 years, and the “story” you’re working on gives you license to approach anyone, and shoot wherever you have to, to get the shot. “Hi, I’m from The Times and I’m working on a photo story on _____.”
So, feel empowered. You now have an opening line when you approach people. “Hi, I’m photographing a project for Roy Stryker, a photography project that is documenting America for Americans, that’s eventually going to be archived at the Library of Congress.“ A good reason for being there goes a long way. Tell them about the project. Tell them the web address, RoyStryker.com, so they can see the collection of photographs.
And people usually say yes, you’d be surprised, but they do.
The women below were aware of my camera, but perfectly willing to be photographed–they’re in an environmental portrait that shows a little about them, their costumes, their attitude, plus some of the location and other people in attendance at the event. The street sign and light posts will be of interest in 50 years.
Now you’ve made the photographs. Edit tightly. Great editing makes great photographers. I’m a big believer in editing so well, that what is shown is recognized as a valuable part of the collection. That high quality of photographs builds trust with our viewers, that this is something worthwhile, and they come back for more.
So, the collection needs strong documentary photographs, and if you submit a photograph that doesn’t make it, please don’t take that as a negative. It doesn’t mean it’s not a good photograph, it just means it may not be right for this project. And it’s all subjective. I’m looking for photographs that show people as they are, in their ordinary life. Like these.
Those photos show a couple of waitresses working a breakfast diner job, and there’s nothing terribly glamorous about what they’re doing, just working for a living on a Sunday morning.
Normally, portraits aren’t going to work for this collection, but this one, the owner of the diner, perhaps works because it’s not posey and smiley, but real. She’s waiting at the checkout counter for me to pay my bill when I photographed her.
I have a photo of my partner, MaryLee, sitting across from me in a booth, but that doesn’t fit the collection at all. It’s a ‘vacation’ photo, made for us.
This photo of people playing an arcade game could work. They’re engaged in some activity, though it needs a caption, since the viewer may have no idea what they’re doing without one.
The photo has to feels genuine. Because it is genuine.
This one below is a photo I wanted to like, as I like the subject, but it doesn’t tell the story well enough. It’s a good idea but just not good enough of a photograph. So, this would be out.
So, from these photos, the viewer gets a sense of what it looks like at a diner in Longmont, Colorado and playing arcade games in a pub in Boulder, Colorado. Some ordinary people going about their lives.
This last photo doesn’t show faces, but a couple of women walking in Rapid City, SD at night. That works, because it shows what Rapid City looks like after dark, and documents an ordinary thing with strong photography.
Editing is certainly subjective, and a different curator would choose different photographs, but go out with the goal of photographing people engaged in life, and I think you’ll find you’re on the right track for this project.