Framing the Shoot, Part 2

Framing the Shoot, Part 2

Last week, I wrote about the power of photographs to liberate and oppress, from Frederick Douglass’s Daguerreotypes to a Manhattan photo instructor’s fraught relationship with his model.

I am concerned to be on the liberatory side of photography history. Goodwill alone won’t take me there. So, this week, I am articulating what had been my nascent principles for portrait photography.

As I developed my thoughts for this piece, I found familiar influences from my coaching training. This didn't surprise me, because I've been thinking about those connections over the last year. I was gratified to also find the influence of Brazilian educationalist Paulo Freire. In his text Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire lays out a philosophy for a democratic relationship between an educator and students. He theorizes a “co-intentional” relationship: the educator and students share power. They negotiate together what they will study and how they will learn, and the educator teaches by posing problems and questions about lived experience, rather than coming to the classroom with ready-made answers. Nonetheless, the educator is still responsible for being an expert in the issue at hand and for setting a course that will best serve the students. Thus, the alliance remains dynamic, supporting students in taking risks and making new discoveries.

I was especially glad to see this influence alive because it’s central to the work at the CUNY SPS MA in Applied Theatre, where I studied and where I advise thesis projects. Helen White, a founder of the program, applies the philosophy to directing, in her course The Co-Intentional Director. So, here I am, aspiring to be a co-intentional photographer.

Share a clear purpose for the project

Freire's  Pedagogy of the Oppressed , along with Boal's applied theatre staple  Theatre of the Oppressed , through the viewfinder of Mert's Minolta Autocord. This camera's viewfinder always shows the subject in mirror image. Concept: Azmi Mert Erdem.

Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed, along with Boal's applied theatre staple Theatre of the Oppressed, through the viewfinder of Mert's Minolta Autocord. This camera's viewfinder always shows the subject in mirror image. Concept: Azmi Mert Erdem.

The International Coach Federation recommends that the coach and client establish a goal for the session before diving into coaching. Who am I to disagree? A clear purpose provides a fair, mutual rubric for evaluating the success of the photo shoot. It also provides the photographer and the client a compass to check during the project, so they can get back on track if they get lost in an idea.

In work I’ve done for the LGBT Center, the purpose included demonstrating solidarity and resilience, and showing complexity. For promotional materials, I’ve built shoots around showing a dark sense of humor, showing warmth, showing strength, and showing trustworthiness. Purposes have also been more interior, such as daring to portray swagger on the camera, or commemorating a career change.

The photographer’s purposes are important to consider, as well. Is the photographer interested in building their business? Making art? Telling a story? These purposes matter, and they’re worth talking about, too. To wit, I’m learning to be clear and direct about the business aspects of the shoot, so that I feel good about it and there is nothing lingering unsaid between me and the client. In regards to art-making and story-telling, I have an eye on both, constantly. Did we get to this client’s gravitas as well as their exuberance? Have we found something special formally, e.g. with the light or wardrobe or composition? I share these questions with my clients, and they get to riff on them with me, and join in developing the shoot as much as they are interested and able to do.

Share ownership of the process

In regards to Freire’s co-intentional perspective, if the photographer and the client are aligned on the purposes of the project, they will be set up to make decisions collaboratively, defusing potential power struggles. For example, if a client and I are clear we’re taking pictures that show she’s an expert in her field, we’ll both know we won’t move on from a look until she’s hit her stride and I’ve got a picture of her being poised. Without that clarity, I might be satisfied to move on if I’ve gotten a picture of her looking joyful, whereas she would feel I had skipped over the core of what she wanted for her shoot.

If the process is really mutually shared, the subject can say, “hold on, stop, this isn’t working for me.” The photographer won’t hear this as a strike against their work, but as an important input toward the purpose of the project. Likewise, if the process is shared, the photographer can pause the action to share their needs—like needing to pause to think through what to do with the light—and to share spontaneous inspiration.

Furthermore, when the photographer and subject are both confident that they have the freedom to say “no,” riskier and edgier ideas become possible. I don't want to breach any confidentiality by telling stories from shoots here, but I hope that my photos convey the sense of risk-taking that has been present in the shoots.

Be able to make the photos

If the photos don’t work, the process may be beautiful, but it will be cheapened in its representation.

What makes photos work? In theatre, formalists critique acting, the narrative, the dialogue, the lighting, the sound, the costumes, the set, and so on. In photography, formalists critique exposure, composition, lighting, setting, props, expressions, poses, and so on. Are these elements the heart of the piece? Not entirely—audiences in both theatre and photography connect viscerally with moments and images and emotions, not the technical moves that manufactured them. However, without those moves, the audience wouldn’t have the juicy moments to remember. Therefore, the photographer has to have a technical and artistic game that matches the curiosity in their soul.

Furthermore, confidence in a strong final product supports a relaxed and creative processes. To maintain faith in the process, the photographer needs to trust in their skills to carry the day. Likewise, the client must trust the unfolding process. This requires an open heart on the client’s end, but also the photographer can nurture trust by communicating well about their work before the shoot and being contagiously and honestly confident during the shoot.

Be conscious of what’s at stake

Another concept of Paolo Freire’s is conscientization: becoming literate in the ways power and oppression work in the world. I reflected in this blog earlier about the importance of cultural literacy in coaching, and the dance between individuals’ particular wants and needs and the collective challenges and privileges individuals engage as a product of their cultural identities. The photographer must be literate in the politics at hand to avoid mimicking minimizing tropes.

To be specific, the more I’ve worked with women to get ready for photographs, the more I’ve recognized patterns in their fears and concerns about being photographed. This has allowed me to connect more quickly to what they’re working through to be able to show up in front of the camera.

Embrace the shadow

"Embracing the shadow" is one of five core approaches to coaching in Leadership that Work's Coaching for Transformation curriculum. In this approach, the coach and client explore parts of the client that usually don't get to speak without a charge or an agenda. A fierce inner critic can come to the session and talk about how tiring it is to stay vigilant; an inner child can come and ask for more chances to play.

At a studio shoot recently, I asserted that people’s faces freeze and their eyes get locked up when they have a strong experience and don’t express it. I invited my client to express those thoughts and feelings, even if they are “back off, I hate being photographed.” I suggested that we could explore how the guarded parts would want to show up on camera. Those photos might turn out, or not. But that’s okay. We never have to use the photos.

This opened up magic for my client. She got to be campy and absurd and, under that, got to be powerful and bold.

By daring to let edgier parts of themselves into the process, the subject gets to stay in the moment and discover whatever magic is waiting in the shadows.

Share control of the product

When the photographer and the subject review the photos, the dream is that all images will clearly be aligned with the purposes for the project. However, the photos might not resonate with all aspects of the purpose of the project, and the photographer and subject might have divergent experiences when viewing the images. In that case, the two need to be able to negotiate together. This is important ethically, and it’s essential for the client to have confidence in the process.

Books' eye view--including a school portrait of the artist as an 8-year-old.

Books' eye view--including a school portrait of the artist as an 8-year-old.

I have found different balances with different clients: “it’s okay to share my photos on your site, but I don’t want my name on them”; “let’s post these everywhere, with links to our websites, to cross-promote”; “yes, post them, but let me share them with my community first”; “these photos aren’t for anyone to see, just me, but these other photos are fine.”

And, sometimes it is not appropriate for the subject or subjects to review the photos before printing. For example, the LGBTQ Center’s My Voice Counts project culminated with in a popup gallery exhibition, so we needed to turn around the images quickly, rather than negotiating with the project’s over 50 participants. That increased the burden on the Center and me to edit the photos thoughtfully, and to clearly obtain consent before beginning the process. Nonetheless, when the project came down, the Center offered the prints to the participants to take home, extending the participants literal ownership of the final products.

The principle has to adapt to the shoot; while negotiating on how to use the photographs, the sharpest criterion is what use is most accountable to the original purpose of the project.

Final Thought: committing, growing

Portraits can be ethical without being liberating, and portraits can be liberating without following these strictures. However, given the luxury of a photo shoot in a studio or on location, and given the work that goes in to production, I dare myself and all photographers to always use photography to tell the truth below the surface, toward a freer world, beautifully.

Framing the Shoot, Part 1

Framing the Shoot, Part 1

The other day, I stopped in at a free flash photography class in a Manhattan camera store. More than flash, I learned about how not to treat the people I photograph. Here’s a telling moment from the class:

Photography Instructor: Shoot her from here.

Model: Shoot me?

Photographer: Yes, shoot you. We’re both going to. The two us are going to shoot you at the same time.

Student photographer: Nervous laugh.

Audience: Silence.

Photographer: Okay. Let’s go. To model. Don’t screw up.

Photo turns out okay, not what the instructor was going for.

Photographer: Self effacingly to audience. In studio photography, if something goes wrong, blame the model!

The instructor was the artistic director for the store. His tone was tongue in cheek, as if he knew what he was saying was creepy and he was being ironic about it—no big deal, guys.

I walked out on the class. I meandered through the store, casting around for way I could have interrupted the dynamic in the class. I didn’t think of anything that useful. I’ll interrupt the dynamic with my career, instead.

What is that dynamic? It’s condescension. More fundamentally, it’s men using women to create images of men’s choosing.

The issue is pervasive. Over a year ago, a friend hired me to take studio portraits of her. The owner of the studio, a man, helped us set up. “Beautiful model,” he said to us both, referring to my friend. I hadn’t thought of my friend in terms of modeling: she is beautiful, but she was my client. She was also someone to address directly, not in the third person.

The issue goes right to the bone: when I’ve talked candidly about photos with women, they say, “I look fat, I look crazy, I look tired, I have ‘resting bitch face,’“ and so on.

To be sure, women aren’t the only ones who have hangups about being photographed, but particular histories—such as media, family expectations, office cultures, school cultures, and the field of history itself—stand in the way of achieving a photographic experience outside of the ideology of photos by and for men.

And indeed, as much as photographs have the power to enforce damning narratives, they have the power to disrupt those narratives and liberate their subjects as well as their viewers.

In their long fight for the right to vote, suffragettes carefully curated their appearances. Photographs captured the women’s “poise” and “daintiness,” insulating the activists from being caricatured as anti-feminine eccentrics[1]. The pictures worked; the suffragettes wielded them in their activist arsenal and got the vote, and the images remain iconic today.

Decades before the suffragettes were captured on film, abolitionist Frederick Douglass went to pains to render his images on silver. Exploiting the new daguerreotype process, Douglass became the most photographed 19th century American. Not the “most photographed 19th century black man in America,” but the most photographed American, period. Douglass lectured on the importance of photography to counter the glut of contemporary racist stereotypes that followed the official end of slavery. Douglass’s images evolved over time, notes Henry Louis Gates, Jr.; Douglass’s multiplicity in his portraits was his “ultimate claim to being fully and equally and complexly human.”[2]

Interventions proliferate today. Carrie Mae Weems’s Kitchen Table Series tells an intimate story about love, family, politics, race and, ultimately, flying the cage, without ever leaving the kitchen. Robert Mapplethorpe's controversial images clothe homoeroticism in sumptuous light. Cindy Sherman romps through visual culture, creating portraits of different people (mostly women) on her own body. Sherman’s warped images leave the suffragettes’ poise and daintiness crumpled in the hamper, but, as with Douglass, her multiplicity asserts her personhood beyond doubt.

“The image is intimate to me,” observes Ana DuVernay, director of Selma, in conversation with her cinematographer Bradford Young. “We use the term’s our mind’s eye for a reason. The images that we consume, and that we take in, can nourish us, and they can malnourish us. They become part of our DNA in some way.”[3]

I aspire to take photographs that allow such complexity, and thus to contribute to shifting cultural tides and individuals’ senses of expanded possibilities.

Indeed, I have had the privelege to see photography free up my clients in their own lives. One client said people had told her she was beautiful all her life, but the process and the photos made her believe it for the first time. Another client got to create images of defiance in our shoot, rather than of congeniality; she might not use these images professionally, but she’s got them for herself, and she says she now knows better how she wants to show up in the world. And many clients bring in personal elements that seem offbeat or inappropriate at first but end up being strong elements in their final pieces.

What supports a liberating portrait process? How can photographers work across lines of power and privilege to create liberating portraits? I’ll take up this question next week, in Framing the Shoot, Part 2.

[1]Sean O'Hagan. “Ladies first: Christina Broom's pioneering portraits of suffragettes.” The Guardian. June 19, 2015.

[2]Henry Louis Gates, Jr. “Frederick Douglass’s Camera Obscura.” Aperture magazine’s summer 2016 issue, Vision and Justice.

[3]Ana DuVernay and Bradford Young. “Black Lives, Silver Screen.” Aperture magazine’s summer 2016 issue, Vision and Justice.

Video: Photos with Ruby

Video: Photos with Ruby

Hello friends! I am proud to release this video about my photo work with the impeccable Ruby Gertz.

See how fashion designer and sex educator Ruby Gertz partnered with Michael to show her "unapologetic truth" in photographs.

Learning How to March

Learning How to March

My good friend Mike invited me to go the Women’s March on Washington with him. He was getting a van and he had a place to stay in DC. I turned him down. Even though I believe in the protest, I explained, being in protests is hard for me. I get anxious in the crowd and duck out early.

Mike pushed back, on phone and in email. This is important, he said. Nothing bad is going to happen to you, and we need people out there. I agreed. Nonetheless, when I have marched in protests before, no matter how cathartic or important they are, eventually my stomach knots up, my mind races so I can’t think straight, I start walking faster to avoid the people around me, and I jump out before I lose it. I told him I wasn’t going. I also resolved to get to the bottom of what was upsetting me and show up as 100% Michael at the sister march in NYC.

Cultural Identities and Coaching

Cultural Identities and Coaching

Two colleagues of mine were debating how much to bring identity politics into their work. For one of them, it was irresponsible to take the lead in conversations about their participants’ cultural identities: for example, in the first session, don’t ask a Filipino woman about prejudice she’s faced. She probably wants to show up as a person, rather than being reduced to this one aspect of her identity and the presumption she’s faced prejudice. For the other colleague, it was irresponsible not to get into politics: go ahead and acknowledge early that the client is a Filipino woman and that prejudices exist, so she doesn’t have to worry about bringing that up herself, and she knows that you embrace a core part of who she is beyond stereotypes.

The debate got me itching to articulate my own stance on engaging cultural identities in coaching.

Embracing my Inner Nicholas Cage

Embracing my Inner Nicholas Cage

In the ‘90s, Nicholas Cage spent a lot of time in his movies sort of being a badass. More than I would like to admit, he became a part of my psyche. Now and then, I close my eyes and see him there. The Rock Nic Cage is shaking off his dweebishness to stop terrorists from nerve gassing San Fransisco; Gone in 60 Seconds Nic Cage is stealing cars and saving cops’ lives; Con Air Nic Cage isfoiling hijackers to get home to his wife and girl, dropping one liners in his greasy tank top.

Wouldn’t he like to take a break? The Nicholas Cage in my psyche, I mean?

Away from the Manger: Creating from Nothing During the Holidays

Away from the Manger: Creating from Nothing During the Holidays

Mert and I are visiting my family in Boston for Christmas. My sister and her husband are at work and the rest of the family is arriving tomorrow. Mert and I took a walk around Brookline and found a nativity scene with no Jesus in it.

I immediately thought about finding something irreverent to put into the spot. A potato? No. But how enticing and powerful—and different—an absence is from a presence.

Dragon Rearing for Purpose Chasers

Dragon Rearing for Purpose Chasers

ONCE UPON A TIME there was a little boy who found an egg. The boy loved the egg and kept it warm, and when the boy was ten years old the egg hatched into a dragon.

Photographing #myvoicematters at the LGBT Center: floating signifiers

Photographing #myvoicematters at the LGBT Center: floating signifiers

I wrote earlier about responding to the presidential election. Last week, I had the privilege to take portraits at the LGBT Center for a response of theirs, #myvoicecounts.


Participants gave permission to the Center to share the photos, so I’m not posting all the photos here. My friend Chris McNabb said I could use his photo, though, and he is resplendent as a sassy seminarian:

The photos show people’s responses to Trump’s election. Participants posed with written responses to why “my voice counts,” in spite of Trump's campaign promises and cabinet choices. The participants’ presences in front of the camera spoke additional volumes. “because my ancestors fought too hard for me to be free,” wrote one black man. He regards the camera directly, shoulders relaxed, jaw squared, eyes simmering. Another black man wrote, “because my grandparents came from South Carolina and didn’t have a choice. I have the right vote for whoever I choose.” His lips are a flat line that I see tenderness in, grey in his eyebrows and wear around his eyes suggest experience, and a polar bear hoodie makes me want to ask him to go sledding. A bronze and black wedding band speaks of commitment. Taken together, these two remind me of the US’s journey through slavery and the Jim Crow era. Trump’s election raises the specter of sliding backward toward those times. However, too much has been fought and won to let that happen. The ancestors these two evoke won’t stand for it, and from that they draw strength.

A white woman stands with hips cocked, her hair businesslike, and proclaims “I refuse to go backwards.”

I am drawn in because she looks so sure, and still playful, and because “backwards” could be anywhere. Is she also talking about racism? Immigration? Gay rights? NATO? Is she even a lesbian? Who knows. I want to know her better. I also like not knowing, and imagining her championing every cause. A concept from a sociology course flickers back to life for me: the floating signifier. Floating signifiers are so empty of meaning that they accommodate all meanings brought to them. Claude Lévi-Strauss coined the term and Philosopher Roland Barthes elaborated the concept to flags: even if people would knock over a table in an argument at Thanksgiving about their values, they can all unite under one flag, because the flag can accommodate all of the different values that people bring to it. And so our friend here with the sass and the determination to move not backwards offers herself as a flag for the people gathered at the Center: to be the perfect white ally, to be the perfect professional lesbian (if that’s your thing!), to be the perfect straight ally, to be the woman breaking the glass ceiling, to stand for decency in public discourse, and, of course, to show the queens how to wear mascara.

Thank goodness for all that, and for the even broader welcome implied in #myvoicecounts, because people who came were so multiple that we couldn’t have agreed on everything. Indeed, I overheard people argue about what activism actual demands, and when to draw limits for comfort and safety. I heard people dissing and defending Hillary. I heard people trip on their privilege and sound as clueless as a presidential debater. Nonetheless, people continued to participate fully and passionately, generously addressing camera, with more rich ambiguity: “because I’m human,” “because WE MUST KEEP FIGHTING,” “because I believe our LOVE overcomes evil!” Their frankness and presences kept the words—which are also floating signifiers—alive and urgent and inclusive of everyone.

Also, thank goodness, some people dared to be specific about their commitments, or we wouldn't have any direction to move in.

A duo strike a pose Madonna would commend and observed their voices count "because I’m a kween” and “because I’m a quing.” The two avoid easy categorization as male or female, and their fist-letter swapping emphasizes their gender liminality as well as their friendship. Mike Pence, don’t try policing the restrooms, here.

 “Because we have disabilities” one young person wrapped in purple seethes into the camera. No more mocking disabled reporters.

 “BECAUSE I’M / MEXICAN / QUEER / FEMME” says a participant in a retro jacket over a button down, claiming identities that Trump maligns as sources of strength. Also in the frame, a young person with long lashes, impeccable foundation and lips, who needs to stoop to stay in front of the step and repeat, flexes their curves and says “because Im My Protection.” The two stand close, communicating affinity. They have each other’s backs.

“because its time for white people to show up and speak out. Ally is a verb, not a noun.”


“because after the president elect mocked the disabled reporter I began to question my abilities and the way folks would treat me as an autistic queer woman!”

And many more. 57 people posed for photos.

Me too:

Taking the photos reassured me, because it is a way that I can contribute. Being a part of the day nourished me, too, because I felt connected to so many people united for moving forward. We were all together under the rainbow flag, floating signifier that it is. Now let's take good care of each other as we develop what moving forward means.

After the Election: Shadows, Values, and Actions

After the Election: Shadows, Values, and Actions

Announcing a special one-hour tele workshop on Thursday 11/17 and Saturday 11/19!

How do you respond to the election? A key moment for me was saying, "Donald Trump is going to be the president." I felt nauseous. I kept saying it. By embracing the yuck, I clarified what I stand for and what I can do to move forward. I also clarified Babka the Otter is my personal president, no matter what happens. Join me for a tele workshop on embracing the shadow, connecting to your values, and taking action, to make the next four years worth fighting for.