I finally landed one of my photographs in the Communication Arts Photography Annual. I have been trying to get into that annual basically since I was born.
The hook here, though, is that I made the image in addition to, almost in spite of, the given assignment.
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The job was an editorial shoot for Phoenix Patriot, the University of Phoenix’s magazine for their military community. The subject, Nancy, is an Air Force spouse and parent who, among other professional accomplishments, established a neighborhood watch program in her family’s subdivision in Missouri. The explicit and yet classically vague goal of the assignment was to capture some sense of Nancy’s engagement with her neighborhood – shots of her looking vigilant, I suppose – and secondarily to represent her life at home in a positive way. It was meant to be a character study of an upstanding citizen, which she clearly is. Like most media outlets, Phoenix Patriot has an agenda, which is to show their graduates in a positive light, having successful lives and careers. That’s what I’m hired to do, and that’s great. I’m a hired gun. (Ha.)
But you can’t turn off your inner compass. At some point during the shoot the conversation turned to guns – maybe I asked about a gun on the wall, or one of the mounted heads. But Nancy’s husband was eventually showing me what seemed like every gun in the house. Theo and I had our pictures taken in the family den holding an AR-15, arguably the most popular assault rifle in America. You would be amazed how light an AR-15 is – it feels like a toy. When he showed us Nancy’s sidearm, I knew I wanted to photograph her holding it, which she couldn’t possibly agree to, I thought. I asked anyway.
She said, “Sure.”
I often feel conflicted when someone agrees to be photographed, because I suspect that they don’t fully understand what is about to happen, how they might be perceived, and how dramatically the meaning of the image can shift once removed from the context of the original moment. But if I got into all that, no one would ever agree to anything.
So we took the picture, and it was a good picture, and partly because it can be read in light of a controversy about gun ownership in the United States, it got some recognition. But the photo editor was not interested in it. After submitting my initial edit, which did not include any gun pictures, I sent a separate email to the magazine’s designer with an attached screen grab of small thumbnails of the gun pics. I wrote something like, “I know this isn’t what you were looking for with this assignment, but I think this series of images is pretty compelling, and I thought you might be interested…” No response. That’s ok, though! I’m grateful they sent me there in the first place. The best thing about any assignment is that it gives me access to people, and the authority, deserved or not, to be the one taking pictures.