Portrait and Interview Session - The Premise
2010-11-30, GREENFIELD, MA - This editorial portrait photography and interview session was my final project for Dennis Vandal's Photojournalism 101 class at UMass Amherst. Dennis gave us regular weekly photography assignments that basically consisted of going out into the community and finding "interesting people" for an editorial photography session and then conduct a sit down and interview session, all while increasing the requirement load per week. Our first photography assignment was to just photograph people. The next week was to photograph people and put together a slideshow. As time progressed, we would do things like add an music track. Then transitions. Then add a voiceover track. Then add narration. Then weave things all together, for the final project: Photos, voice, audio/music, narration, slideshow, in whatever way we felt told the story of our subjects.
I was inspired to do this photo project mostly due to another classmate's approach to her presentation a week before our final projects were announced when she timidly asked if nudity was okay to show in her weekly assignment. It was a tastefully done shot of man-butt for the second to final frame in her slideshow. I felt that it would be a good idea to push the envelope just a little more, so when Dennis asked what our final photography projects were going to be about, the following week, I said "I know someone who sells sex toys for a living. I was gonna interview her."
There was a moment very awkward silence in class before Dennis replied, "Uhhhh. Before you actually submit it for review, would you mind sending it to me first, so I can be sure you don't end up just taking photos of someone waving dildos at the camera?"
More awkward silence.
Someone behind me whispered to another while giggling, "Oh my God, he actually said 'dildo!'"
"Sure," I replied. "If it doesn't measure up, I already have another project done that I can submit."
"Seriously? Why not just turn THAT one in..?"
"I want to see if I can handle a potentially questionable topic tastefully, even IF it involves dildos. Also, there would be more than one person interviewed; I wanted to see if I can handle two women at once."
More awkward silence.
"Well, since you obviously put SOME thought into this already..."
Portrait and Interview Session - Multimedia Project
So, that weekend, Amber and I set up for a photoshoot and an interview in Amanda's basement (it's a basement that she had converted into a small night club), in Greenfield, Massachusetts.
This would have been my first portrait photography session where I would be making full use of multiple radio triggered flashes, and using colored gels to create splashes of color on the background for separation, and figuring out how to properly key-light in a small confined space. It would also be the first interview that I had done that would need clear pauses between questions and answers since there would be the potential of an interview turning into a blended three way conversation -- it's really difficult to get good soundbites isolated that way.
As the interview progressed, I found myself more and more fascinated by Amber's enthusiasm, and clear passion for what she does. She likened the exploration of sex to discovering the kinds of food one likes and that "the bedroom is no different than the kitchen, especially if you have enough counter space. ha!"
Selling sex toys for Athena's was just one aspect of Amber's belief that sexuality, and the open exploration and expression of one's sexual side, is crucial to one's own mental and emotional health. For her, it's a world view that she takes very seriously. "I'm someone that wants to show other people that it is okay...when it comes to sex. It needs to happen. It's a world I really want to live in and that's why I do what I do."
Not that a conversation with two women about sex was a hard thing that required me to remain stiff for long in order to handle well. The three-way interaction between Amber, Amanda, and myself had moments of playful innuendo, energetic back and forth banter, genuine laughter, and true wisdom.
Looking back, I am glad for deciding to explore this topic, as it provided some specific challenges. First, it was a my first attempt at using multiple remote triggered Speedlites in order to light a portrait session. Secondly, it was both a portrait session and a documentary photography session that involved multiple subjects interacting in a live setting. It was also conducted in the equivalent of a small nightclub complete with the random lights, dark walls, multiple sources for highlights, different textures, and surfaces. Finally, it was a topic that can carry some unnecessary stigma especially especially because it involved women discussing sexuality, empowerment and healing through the consensual exploration of sex. Is there anything wrong with women, specifically women, being sexually empowered, and comfortable as human beings with sex and sexuality? Is the expression of sexuality, something to be gasped over; wink-winked; admonished; objectified; lusted after; shamed; considered repulsive, salacious, scandalous, and scary, especially when expressed by women? Is it gross, sinful, harmful, or dirty or is sex just sex? Is sex Okay?
Portrait and Interview Session - Aftermath
I intend to go back over older photography projects, from time to time, to see if there are others that I'd be inspired to re-visit. What would I do differently? What did I see then? I feel that it's an important element of my photography to occasionally review my past work in order to see where I've come from in relation to where I currently am.
These images are my attempt to re-cull, and re-edit, an older environmental portrait photography project with the intention to do so in the manner that I would do so, now, seven years later. It was a fun challenge to try and see what I saw then, compared to how I would see things now. There was some over lap, in terms of photos that I chose -- you'll see that in the accompanying photo slide-show -- but even with the same photos, I edited them in order to better showcase Amber's colorfully vibrant personality, and infectious laughter.