producing documentary books

Producing Documentary Books: Assigning and Structuring Photography

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Let's go!
Let’s go!

Assigning and Structuring Photography are the heart-and-soul operations of your project and I’ll break this down for you here in my blog series, The Ultimate Guide to Producing Documentary Books.

For documentary books, photographers must prove they can shoot prolifically and be inventive so there is an excess of coverage, not a lack of one. You’ll know that by looking at their past assignments to see how they approached one situation. A situation is a set-up or scene. A day shoot for a magazine story might have 3 situations at one location. Each situation should produce about four or five usable frames even though space dictates only three or four images total will run. For a book, each situation should result in about 10 images to flush out the story. What I mean by usable frames is that within one situation, each shot is significantly different in some way. Find photographers who consistently produce multiple usable frames out of a situation. This means asking to review their entire take of a one-day editorial shoot, not just the hero frames that were published.

It’s easy to photograph one location that has 3 setups and come up with a total of six usable shots. A vertical and a horizontal of each, right? NO! It’s much more difficult to deliver 30 expertly executed images out of the same scenario. The photographer needs assignment help to do this. Without providing them with detailed shot lists and direction you can’t expect true documentary coverage. There has to be an extreme variety of shot selections for the book’s final composition.

Let’s take an example: our book will be about the world’s 12 most remarkable bazaars. Each bazaar will receive 10 pages (that’s only 5 spreads). The first location is Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. It has 60 streets and 5,000 shops! How in the world can a photographer tackle that assignment on a budget that only allows for one week of scouting and shooting? Remember, Istanbul is one chapter in this book covering 12 world bazaars. So a master plan needs to be developed. The coverage must be representative and yet tailored so that image situations from the other bazaars don’t end up looking the same.

Along with the must-have shots (i.e., establishing, inside, outside, details, most expected and notable features), you’ll need to devise a unique narrative thread for each bazaar. Ideas: a vendor’s daily journey documented from home to workshop to stall; a historian profiled; a restoration project detailed; a buyer’s special search; an administrator’s plight explained. You’ll assign both general coverage and a special storyline to follow. Aim for a total of 200 usable frames to edit to a final 30 images for each bazaar. Some of those finals will drop out and some will be considered for opening spreads, covers and promotional materials.

Start by looking for photographers based in—or accessible to—each city who has either covered the location before or is expert enough to handle the assignment. Aesthetically, I recommend creating a mood board of styles from portfolios to start narrowing down the finalists. For 12 locations, I might want a broad mix of looks and approaches. Maybe one bazaar is shot only looking down and another is shot only at night. One might only include faces; another only motion. The structure needs to be both well-founded and organic so the photographer feels comfortable knowing what is expected but also encouraged to provide those surprising moments you’ll be counting on.

For sequencing, this type of book can be structured several ways. The bazaars could be sorted geographically, alphabetically, by age or by size. Or the visual style could dictate the pacing of the pages. Within each chapter, there are more sequencing options. They could all follow the same grid or there could be four grids that alternate. Each photographer could be represented within the chapter itself or in an end section. Sometimes this might be determined before the photography is completed but it can also take shape when all images are seen together. I will explain more about sequencing in Part 17.

The producer’s job is to make sure all of the possibilities for the best coverage exist when the photographer arrives on the scene. If you have assignment editors working with you, drive them to research and brainstorm every angle. The writer is also going to be providing you with textual information that you need to translate into visual opportunities. Fun stuff!

Until I return with Part 13, Hiring a Printer, here are the top 10 mistakes making Turkish coffee. I need a cup now!

 

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