Lesson from the Scene: No Setup Photos

by Stanley Leary

When focus groups review most educational recruiting pieces, they wish for natural looking photos, not stiff setup images.
I’ve spent over twenty years as a photographer shooting pure photojournalism, where one captures what happens in front of the camera as it unfolds. Now I shoot for advertising pieces, where there are stylists arranging everything in a photo.
Most focus groups are asking the wrong questions. “Do you like the photo?”, is not as thought provoking as, “What did you learn from the photo?” A better probing question is, “Does the photo help you see what a typical dorm room looks like?”  One could follow up with, “What could improve the photo to show you a dorm room?”
Having a focus group evaluate war photos with the typical questions “Did you like the photos?” would skew results that would indicate the image was not successful.
I’ve come to appreciate photos with truly “real” moments.  I’ve spent many years shooting “photojournalism” for magazines, newspapers and wire services.  One does not change anything related to the image. The photographer uses composition, lens choices, lighting and timing to communicate the mood and reality of a situation.
How can one know the right moment to take the image unless one has a clear idea of the message?  Dig below the surface to find the truth. Understanding is interest, sympathy, curiosity, and the human element of the equation. 
While photojournalism will give you “real” photos, reality for college recruiting may allow photo development in the confines of a structural set.It’s where “sitcom” photography might be better.  We all know the sitcom isn’t real, but it can create a structured reality where the visual elements come together for the story.
This type of photography is when the school has determined the need, then build communications elements to attain the goal.  For example if they want to appear more diverse in the future, one will need to show diversity.  If one needs to keep it real, one must locate those situations where diversity already exists.
It’s apparent there are a number of ways to communicate ones message in photographs. The ideal scenario is to search for “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 one needs 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.  There are drawbacks to recreating sitcom realities. It could look too stiff or contrived, which undermines any reality. If properly planned, one could get a sense of the campus and want to know more about the school.
Follow the message. If a project needs to be created to tell a more informed story, try using the sitcom strategy. It may help get the message across and look more natural at the same time.