A business executive arrives on set. I say hello and reach out my hand. He says three words, and I look at him and say, “I’m guessing you grew up two miles from Revere Beach (outside Boston). Shocked, he looks up, thinks for a moment, and says, “That’s about right, maybe two and a half.” Connection formed. Shooting begins, smooth and personable.

I was doing an editorial assignment for an IT magazine and I had to photograph a young woman (less than 30) who was the head of IT for a university. The piece was about IT security of educational institutions. There are very few women in this type of position and certainly few under age 30, so it was understandable that she didn’t want to appear flippant or cavalier. It was a very serious topic and she wanted to gain the respect of her peers, so when she arrived stone faced with arms tightly crossed in the setting, I got it. Problem was, my editor specifically asked me to photograph her smiling and no crossed arms. After a few frames, her expression wasn’t changing, you could see the concern in her eyes about her appearance. As much as I understood the root of her stiffness, I had to find some way to change things.

I stopped, held the camera to the side and paused for a moment. I then asked, “By any chance are the paintings on the floor downstairs in the IT department yours?” She looked at me as though I had just pulled a rabbit out of a hat, saying, “Well yes, how do you know?” As we scouted on the various floors a 12×12 painting caught my eye. It was four squares of color – earth tones. I didn’t think anything of it at the time, just admired the painting. But standing in front of her, straining to figure out how I was going to break the shell she was wearing, I noticed her bracelet. That was what I was staring at when I paused. “Your bracelet,” I told her. “It has squares of the same four colors as the painting downstairs.” She uncrossed her arms to look at her bracelet. I said nothing while she paused, just raised my camera. When she looked up, she smiled. Ice melted, instantly. We moved on, continuing to shoot.

In that one sentence I had managed to do a number of things – first, I brought her away from where she works, away from IT, away from hackers and viruses. I brought her to her pastime, her hobby – collecting art. Her pleasures, her preferences. At the same time, I acknowledged something about her, her tastes. Let’s remember this is an IT office, not the center of the guys-who-notice-things-about-women world. Especially when that woman is their boss.

An intern who was working with me at the time later asked, “How did you know that?” I didn’t, I responded, I just notice stuff.

Take people out of their norm – make them feel at ease.

I put John Chambers, CEO of Cisco Systems, in a small cube with a phone.

I put John Chambers, CEO of Cisco Systems, in a small cube with a phone.

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