Behind the Scenes: “Service Stigma”

This week’s Cap Times features my photo on their front cover for a story about employment challenges facing returning veterans.

I must say, this was one of the harder portraits I’ve been commissioned to do.

The assignment was to photograph a veteran, “Margaret,” who wished to remain anonymous, but was ok with being photographed from behind. Taking a portrait that sustains anonymity is sort of difficult in itself. Adding to this was she didn’t have any military artifacts to use as props or distinguishing features that would say, “Hey, I was in the military.”

Finally, the photo was supposed to illustrate struggles with PTSD—an abstract concept photographically speaking.

So ya, lots of problem solving. But that’s sort of the fun part of my job. Even though it’s always great (and preferred) that a shoot goes off without a hitch, the more difficult ones can be more rewarding.

So how did I solve the problems? I thought about the shoot for days (I’m pretty sure I briefly dreamed about it too). I looked at other portraits that dealt with the same subject. I revisited Craig Walker’s Pulitzer-winning series on a Colorado man struggling with PTSD and felt wholly inadequate as a photojournalist. I complained. After feeling like I should give up on the whole thing because I would never achieve the perfection of Walker’s story, I pulled myself back together and thought about lighting—”do I know any lighting techniques that could add some uniqueness to this image? How about backgrounds…what’s my ideal background? Environmental? Intimate?” Way too many possibilities.

When the day of the photoshoot rolled around, I threw all my lighting (3 stands, 3 strobes, 2 soft boxes and an umbrella) and photo gear (2 cameras, 4 lenses) in my car and headed over to where we were going to take the photo. Once I walked in the door, any possibility I had ever considered flew out the window. Pretty much every photographer has had that feeling. Nothing I had planned for would even work. So…time to think on my feet.

Luckily Margaret had lots of time. I spent the first 20 minutes strolling around the facility, looking for backdrops, photos, murals—anything that said, “this is a military woman.” Nothing. Except, I did find two little American flags tucked away in a box underneath a desk. I nabbed those and headed to the largest bay of windows in the small office.

I decided I wanted to have her looking out the window (I know, I know, not very original) and then blow out the outside so it was pure white. The biggest problem with that was there were two huge evergreen trees outside the window that refused to get blown out. Each test shot looked worse than the one before, all featuring a giant evergreen.

Well, since the sun wasn’t strong enough to get rid of that tree, I had to recreate the sun. Using a pocket wizard, I put a strobe at full power on the window sill outside. Ta-da! (You can still see a little part of that stupid tree in the bottom left corner arrgghhh.)

Now, to figure out the pose. With no distinguishing military artifact, I decided to use a military pose to convey what props could not.

When the shoot was over I looked over at the table that held all my equipment and realized that out of the 3 lights, I’d used one; out of the cameras I’d used only my 5D; and out of the lenses I’d only needed a 35mm and 50mm. Sometimes it’s just better/easier/more efficient to keep things simple. Having techniques and equipment up your sleeve can help, but other times the photo is just asking for a straightforward approach.

Although I’m not super excited about my final result, I am happy that the editors liked it enough for the cover.

Here are some of the other photos that ran with the story:

If you’re interested in the article, I highly suggest giving it a read. Great reporting from Bennet Goldstein on an underreported issue in Wisconsin.

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