Pete Souza & Photographic Resistance

Like a lot of people, I’ve been following ex-White House photographer Pete Souza’s Instagram and seeing his almost daily posting of photos taken during Barrack Obama’s eight year presidency, often reflecting in them differences between the current and former administration. These are equally biting, critical, melancholic. They serve as an authoritative primary document – a way of reminding us of certain aspects of history in a climate where it is becoming frighteningly easy to bury and deny even things that happened yesterday.

As well as the moral and ethical implications these reminders have, it’s also really interesting from a photography perspective. A lot of the photographs Souza is posting are photographs he has posted before; he is reposting them to highlight a point, to serve a purpose. When these were taken, it is highly likely that the original intent was not the point he is making now. Documentary photography especially is meant to embody and encompass the world we live in at a particular time. We bring to it our knowledge of what is currently happening, as well as what has happened.

However, when Souza is posting these photographs – often tagging them and captioning them with pointed descriptions – they have an entirely different message to perhaps the original one intended.

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Souza was a prolific photographer – Obama wasn’t the only President he photographed – and during Obama’s administration he was with him almost every day, shooting thousands and thousands of photographs. During the beginning of Trump’s administration, he was actually going through his catalogue to pick out photos for a book he is releasing. So it was obvious that as certain things were happening, mirroring or sharply contradicting what had happened before, he would post or repost things he had seen as a form of social commentary. His captions were never outright hostile; they didn’t need to be. The photos said everything better and more succinctly than even the fiercest critic could.

For example, there has been growing criticism over the Trump administration’s responses to deadly hurricanes Irma and Maria in Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and Houston. Trump was accused at worst of negligence, and at best of using the size and scope of the destruction as a political and egotistical measuring tool. During all of this, Souza would post photos of the various relief efforts conducted during similar disasters during Obama’s campaign, as well as photographs highlighting the former President’s natural empathetic and selfless nature.

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During the aftermath of Charlottesville, Obama tweeted a photograph that Souza had taken of him alongside a Nelson Mandela quote, which became the most liked and fourth most retweeted tweet in Twitter history, showing not only how powerful and potent Souza’s photography coupled with Mandela’s words were, but also how desperate the world was to feel some sense of humanity and empathy.

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It has gotten to a point now where people are beginning to expect some form of photographic social commentary from Souza. There’s even memes about it, which he seems to find amusing. But in the comments there is also a sadness, a longing to go back to a time before. The comments are always a mixture of joy and pain, a reflection of what a country once had and a critical examination of what it has become.

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I can’t speak as to Pete Souza’s original intent in his “commentary” – he has started doing a book tour where he speaks about his experiences and he apparently feigns ignorance at his “shade” and insists he is only posting his work. But you have to think that for someone who was so intimately in the shadow of a great man such as Barack Obama, it would be increasingly frustrating to see the good works and the good intent being torn down daily, and worse yet, rewritten to suit a different narrative. To be able to post a photograph that says, “No, this is how it happened,” would be a powerful act of rebellion and resistance.

Words are becoming increasingly twisted and manipulated and denied and distorted. Photographs can change context, but what they show in them at their core rarely lies.

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Lion Cubs

On Monday I went to Werribee Open Range Zoo with my sister. When I’ve been taking a lot of photos of people – doing portraits or con photos – I always need to decompress by doing something completely different.
When I heard that there were four newborn cubs at Werribee I knew I wanted to go and see them before they got too big! We were really lucky, because that day was the first time people were allowed up close to the glass (they had to be introduced to crowds very gradually). They didn’t seem bothered at all, and made a great show of sharing their first bone, rolling around on the grass practicing pouncing and stalking, and bothering their parents.
One of the best parts was watching them all sit up when they heard their dad growling, and then start to run around trying to growl like him.
They are such beautiful, graceful animals and it was so rewarding just sitting quietly and watching them. The lion cubs were obviously the big drawcard, but I found the lioness just as captivating to watch. She seemed very patient with her new babies, constantly making sure they were all getting a chance to eat the bone and giving them baths. She didn’t seem overly bothered by us all watching, every so often casting us a glance but then going back to her newborns. The photo that I took of her was probably my favourite of the day.
This did nothing whatsoever to quell my wish to one day do a proper safari. I can’t even begin to imagine how amazing that would be.

2016

It’s currently 1:42am on Saturday, December 31st, 2016. 

When I was little, the countdown to Christmas went by in the time it took you to blink. Then before you knew it you were counting down the days until New Year, and until you had to go back to school, and that seemed to go even faster.

But I’m grown now, and the end of 2016 feels like these last few months have staggered and almost crawled to the end.

2016 will probably not be looked on fondly when people look back years from now. I can practically feel the echoing wave of collective sighs of relief when the clock ticks over around the world into the near year. To a lot of people, 2016 has felt like one long drawn out ending. We’re all holding our breath.

Good things happened; of course they always do. It can take longer to look for them sometimes. I feel like this year my photography finally took a step forward – it’s closer to where I want it to look, feel. I’m still not there (I’ll never feel quite “there”, I don’t even know where “there” is) but it definitely took a leap over the seemingly immovable static I had been feeling.

 

Osric Chau, Captain America, Vegas Cosplay Portrait, 2016

Osric Chau, Captain America, Vegas Cosplay Portrait, 2016

 

Rob Benedict, Viper Room LA, June 2016

Rob Benedict, Viper Room LA, June 2016

 

Billy Moran, Viper Room June 2016

Billy Moran, Viper Room June 2016

 

Matt Cohen, Phoenix 2016

Matt Cohen, Phoenix 2016

 

I was privileged to get to work with incredible people, to be supported by incredible people. I was able to push myself way out of my comfort zone and found I liked it; no, I loved it. Even when I hated it, even when I was scared of it, I loved it.

 

Briana Buckmaster, Seattle 2016

Briana Buckmaster, Seattle 2016

 

Matt Cohen and Osric Chau, Phoenix 2016

Matt Cohen and Osric Chau, Phoenix 2016

 

Makayla, September 2016

Makayla, September 2016

 

Rob Benedict and Richard Speight Jr, Seattle 2016

Rob Benedict and Richard Speight Jr, Seattle 2016

 

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Osric, Vancouver 2016

 

Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles, Sunday, VanCon 2016

Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles, Sunday, VanCon 2016

 

Kim Rhodes and Rob Benedict, PhxCon 2016

Kim Rhodes and Rob Benedict, PhxCon 2016

 

Angie and Brooke, October 2016

Angie and Brooke, October 2016

 

Osric Chau, Phoenix 2016

Osric Chau, Phoenix 2016

 

Jared Padalecki, Misha Collins, Jensen Ackles PhxCon 2016

Jared Padalecki, Misha Collins, Jensen Ackles PhxCon 2016

 

Ruth Connell, SFCon 2016

Ruth Connell, SFCon 2016

 

Danielle, October 2016

Danielle, October 2016

 

2016 firmly cemented in my mind that portraiture is where my heart and soul is; it’s where I feel strongest, where I feel the most afraid, where I feel the most exhilarated. I was so, so fortunate I had such a wealth of amazing people that helped cement that for me.

 

Misha Collins, Vancouver 2016

Misha Collins, Vancouver 2016

 

Kat, LA 2016 Makeup by Vic Righthand

Kat, LA 2016
Makeup by Vic Righthand

 

Kim Rhodes, LA 2016 Makeup by Vic Righthand

Kim Rhodes, LA 2016
Makeup by Vic Righthand

 

Timothy Omundson, LA 2016

Timothy Omundson, LA 2016

 

Rob Benedict, LA 2016

Rob Benedict, LA 2016

 

But 2016 was an ending for me too. I don’t know what the future will bring, and it was an ending for me thinking that if I just sit back and be patient enough things will happen. I have to stop thinking that way. I need to become proactive and make things happen. Patience is a virtue, but so is passion and movement and action. If I really want this as much as I claim I do, I need to go out and get it.

I don’t know how.

I’m scared.

I will still tell myself I’m not good enough.

But I won’t listen anymore.

It’s now 2:22am, Saturday December 31, 2016. I’ll go to bed, wake up, and it will be the last day of this crazy, unrepeatable year.

Goodbye, 2016.

Hello, 2017. 

Art Show Portraits

A couple of weeks ago, my Aunt told me about an art show they were having at one of the residential aged care facilities where she works. The residents who were having their art work displayed were going to have photos to go alongside their biographies, and she asked me if I would be willing to take them.

I went today, and while I can’t show any of the photos for privacy reasons, I thought I would write a little bit about the experience, because it was so different to any other portraits I have taken. So I apologise if this ends up being a bit TL;DR with no photos to break it up. I’ll try and be succinct!

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Angie and Brooke and Benson // DragonBallZ Cosplay

On the weekend, I was lucky enough to get to do a cosplay shoot with Angie, Brooke and their good friend Benson at the Australian Movie & Comic Expo in Melbourne. They were cosplaying Bulma, Chi-Chi, and the Ox-King respectively, all characters from DragonBallZ. This was challenging, because I don’t know anything about these characters! But it actually turned into something of a blessing, because while they could take control of the posing and the way they wanted the shoot to look, I took care of the technical side.

The day before in Melbourne had been bright and sunny, but overnight it had gotten overcast. This was actually better photography-wise, because it meant a softer, diffused light with less harsh shadowing. Except it was windy. Exceptionally windy. If it was possible to physically harm the wind, I think by the end of us shooting outside Brooke would have tried. I tried to reason that the wind would make it look more realistic with the movement of material and hair, but I don’t know if she believed me.

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Too windy for Brooke!

We did the bulk of the shoot outside after finding a grassed area surrounded by tall shrubs. It had the advantage of both looking good in the photos and hiding the surrounding cars, trucks, buildings of the Melbourne Showgrounds.

Brooke, Angie and Benson started bouncing ideas around and started posing. The settings were relatively straightforward and I actually shot everything about 1/2 – 1 stop under so I could work with boosting in post. I also tried using the “shady” white balance setting this time around, whereas I usually keep the white balance on auto and fix it later.

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There were certain poses that were “must haves” for them; ones inspired by things on the show they’d seen. But other than that it was just them bouncing ideas around. When we couldn’t take the wind anymore, we all went inside to see what we could get inside the pavilion under lights.

Naturally, the change in environment meant changing the exposure settings. I put the white balance back on auto, slowed the shutter speed slightly, widened the aperture slightly and boosted the ISO. The main thing I wanted was a wider aperture to get a shallow depth of field because I didn’t want too much of the background to be in focus (eg. all the people milling around), but not too shallow to make focus difficult.

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I actually really liked the effect if I crouched low and shot up, as it caught the lighting and lines running along the ceiling and I thought it was a cool effect.

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Editing was another challenge for me, because I knew that since these were anime characters it would lend itself to a more vibrant, saturated colour edit but I still wanted to avoid blowing out the highlights. Shooting slightly underexposed helped with that. In Lightroom I boosted the saturation slightly, then after importing into Photoshop I played with the curves and levels to boost the light. I made sure to keep the light on their face, and tried to slightly burn the backgrounds. I also used the lasso tool to select certain specific colour aspects of the photo; Angie’s hair and Brooke’s dress. Then I would use a selective colour mask and boost the cyan / magenta levels respectively. This helped make those two areas stand out brightly without sacrificing the rest of the photos (eg. especially skin tone).

I was so proud of how these turned out but the thing that really stood out to me was how much fun it was – and how they looked like they were having fun. I truly believe that if you’re subjects are relaxed and having fun and you are, it will come out in the photos and I think this is a good example of that.

I’m so lucky to have such talented people who want me to photograph them.