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Best of 2010 - Shawn G. Henry


After completing the requested shots for the maker of heavy-duty utility boxes, Shawn G. Henry transformed a commercial shoot into a more personal project by offering to make manufactured portraits of employees in the workplace. Camera-shy workers — many of whom had never sat for a real portrait — suddenly turned into eager subjects in Henry’s makeshift studio on the factory floor. Each employee received a free print, Henry added a new gallery to his Web site and the client is featuring several portraits in their redesigned marketing materials, making Henry’s initiative a winning endeavor for all.

Shawn G. Henry, San Diego, CA

Web site: www.shawnhenry.com

Project: Industrial shoot for a manufacturer of heavy-duty utility boxes and additional self assigned portraits of all companies employees.

© Shawn G. Henry
All images in this article © Shawn G. Henry.

ASMP: How long have you been in business?
SGH:
22 years.

ASMP: How long have you been an ASMP member?
SGH:
5 or 6 years I think…

ASMP: What are your photographic specialties?
SGH:
Environmental portraiture and documentary work. And if you count my Facebook page, I suppose you could include iPhone photos of beer as a specialty as well.

© Shawn G. Henry

ASMP: What do you consider your most valuable piece of equipment?
SGH:
While I love quality gear, I don’t think it’s usually as critical in what I do as my willingness to respect the subject, put them at ease, and try to tell a little bit of their story. I do think light is critical; it really sets the mood. Sometimes you have to make it, and when that’s the case you do need some gear, but I use everything from the big Elinchrom Octa to an assortment of little, under-cabinet lights I bought at Home Depot, and many times, if you look for it, the quality light is already there.

© Shawn G. Henry

ASMP: What is unique about your style and approach or what sets you and your work apart from other photographers?
SGH:
Honestly, I don’t know. I do know that I don’t try to squeeze every subject into a preconceived way that I shoot, a “Shawn G. Henry style.” Many years ago I heard Greg Heisler — who is truly one of the best photographers working today — talk about the “appropriate response” to the assignment, and it made so much sense. I try to remember this every time I walk into a new assignment. Some photographers are very successful at doing the same thing over and over again, and for some folks it works, but I’ve tried to respond to the particular assignment and base my approach on what it calls for rather than impose a particular style.

ASMP: Please describe the processes and techniques central to the making of this work.
SGH:
I thought the concept of photographing the employees in a “studio” setting in the middle of the factory floor really worked in this situation. Using a background within an environment and occasionally showing the whole set up isn’t necessarily unique (check out the work of my friends Brad Trent and Greg Kiger), but I thought it worked well for this project. It’s a manufacturing plant and these are manufactured portraits — that’s a fairly simplistic explanation, but I think it works.

© Shawn G. Henry

ASMP: Was New Basis a new client for you and, if so, how did they find you and assign you this project?
SGH:
They were a new client. I knew the president of the company personally and he asked me for advice on the photography when they decided to rework their Web site. I saw it as an opportunity to do some interesting work and convinced them to hire me.

© Shawn G. Henry

ASMP: What was your initial motivation to start photographing the worker portraits in addition to your assigned work?
SGH:
I love shooting portraits, and I knew going in that in addition to the documentary and product focused work, I wanted to do something to highlight the workers themselves. It’s a very interesting group of people who work there.

© Shawn G. Henry

ASMP: How did you initially broach the idea of making these portraits to your client? Was this something that you confirmed with written paperwork?
SGH:
From the outset I said I wanted to take some time shooting portraits. I did submit a contract for the job describing the specs as outlined by the client, but nothing specifically in the paperwork about the portraits.

© Shawn G. Henry

ASMP: You mention that, although the client did not initially request them, they wound up using a number of portraits on their new Web site and brochures. What are the details of this use and did this result in additional income for you?
SGH:
The switch to the portraits on the Web site (which still isn’t live yet) replaced some of the other photographs the client originally thought they’d use. The total number of final images remained the same, so there wasn’t any additional fee above our original agreement. In most situations like this when we’re trying to shoot as much good material as possible and being fluid doing the shoot rather than sticking to a set number of set up shots, I try to include a specific number of deliverables within the contract, with additional fees for use of additional final images. In this case, the number of final images didn’t change.

© Shawn G. Henry

ASMP: Were you working with an assistant during the assignment and portrait sessions? Were they local to the area or from the east coast?
SGH:
I was working with an assistant the entire shoot. While doing the portraits, the assistant handled getting releases and IDs from the subjects as I shot, in addition to corralling more subjects. The assistant was from Northern California and we’d worked together previously.

© Shawn G. Henry

ASMP: How was the flow of portrait subjects and the environment around the set managed? Were any corporate staff members present while you were shooting the portraits and, if so, what kind of interaction did they have with the workers?
SGH:
Early in the process, many of the workers were quite timid about being photographed. Once I started shooting, more of the workers crowded around the set, and as time went by more and more came forward to be photographed. We worked very quickly, usually only shooting 20 to 50 frames of each subject, varying from isolating the person on the seamless to including the whole set, again depending on what seemed right with the subject. There were no “corporate” folks around during the shoot, until the end when a few came out to have their own portraits taken.

ASMP: What kind of lighting was used for the portraits?
SGH:
The lighting was very basic. One Profoto Acute 600B in a Photek Softlighter, balanced to the ambient light in the background.

© Shawn G. Henry

ASMP: What, if any, styling was done to the subjects before you shot their portraits and what role did propping play in the success of these portraits?
SGH:
We told the subjects that they could bring anything onto the set with them that they wanted. Some brought their hammers or power tools, some brought nothing, actually changing into clean clothes prior to the shoot. Most of the forklift drivers drove their lift onto the seamless.

© Shawn G. Henry

ASMP: You mention that many of your subjects had never had a real portrait taken before. Did you use any particular strategies to put the subjects at ease? Did you allow them to view the images on the LCD screen or laptop or did they only see the images as prints?
SGH:
Some were interested in seeing their images on the camera, most however didn’t want to spend that much time away from work. They walked on set, I shot quickly with fairly minimal direction, at most usually just asking them to turn towards or away from the light.

© Shawn G. Henry

ASMP: Were any employees unwilling to participate in your portrait project, and if so, what reasons did they give for declining?
SGH:
Several of the employees didn’t want to be photographed, but we didn’t press as to why.

ASMP: How many individuals did you photograph, how many prints did you produce and how much time did it take to shoot all the portraits? What percentage of time was this in relation to your assigned work?
SGH:
We probably shot the portraits for about three hours on the final afternoon of the shoot, and in that time we photographed about 65 employees. The majority of the time on location — about two and a half days — was devoted to the other aspects of the shoot.

© Shawn G. Henry

ASMP: Please describe the easiest portrait to shoot, and the portrait subject that was the most difficult.
SGH:
Most of the portraits were pretty easy; each person walked onto the seamless and struck their particular pose. I really did minimal directing. I guess the two portraits that fell into place the quickest and looked great as soon as I raised the camera to my eye were the worker with the grinder (his expression and the way he held his body just seemed perfect) and the worker with the air driver (same thing — he held up the driver and looked directly into the lens… perfect). The most difficult was also one of the most photogenic; this guy kept striking pose after pose, playing not just to the camera, but to the workers watching as well. In the end we managed a few nice portraits of him, but there was a lot of hamming it up in the process.

© Shawn G. Henry

ASMP: As a result of doing this project, do you have any new insights about ways to direct subjects who are unfamiliar with being photographed or uncomfortable in front of a camera during a portrait session?
SGH:
Again, I didn’t do a lot of directing, except to tell them where to stand or where to park their forklifts. I think one of the things that really makes these portraits work is the honesty, pride, and humility in how the subjects present themselves to the camera and the viewer. There’s no pretention.

© Shawn G. Henry

ASMP: You shoot a lot of industrial work, which is often sited in situations with questionable lighting and less than pristine conditions. Do you have any tips for covering this subject to result in beautiful/ appealing images? Are there particular conditions or activities that you gravitate to or others that you try to avoid?
SGH:
I think lighting is key; you have to look for it or be ready to make it, and if you’re making it, I think you need to be careful not to overdo it unless there’s simply nothing there in the first place. You can generally make a drab scene a lot more dramatic with just the addition of one or two lights in the right place. I also tend to gravitate to the people in the scene and to focus on them. I think photographs in these situations are much more interesting if the viewer is given some connection to or appreciation for the person in the scene.

© Shawn G. Henry

ASMP: How do you protect your lighting, camera and computer equipment from being damaged while working in the raw environment of a factory floor?
SGH:
I don’t do much, beyond basic common-sense stuff: If I’m not using the extra camera or lenses I leave them in the bag. Same with the lighting gear. When it’s being used I try to protect it as much as possible from the obvious (not placing the power pack next to the barrel that’s about to be filled with concrete, for example) but if it has to get a little dirty, so be it.

© Shawn G. Henry

ASMP: Did the workers sign model releases and do you have rights for commercial use of the portraits? Has this work resulted in new clients or new markets for your images?
SGH:
Yes, the majority of the workers signed releases. And, yes, I shot two jobs for a new client this spring because the client saw this work.

ASMP: Have you piggybacked any personal projects with a commercial shoot since doing this particular series?
SGH:
Not yet, but I’m working on a proposal to produce a similar project for another potential corporate client.

© Shawn G. Henry

ASMP: Following the success of this portrait series, what plans might you consider for continuing your portrait efforts in the workplace, including an exhibition or a book?
SGH:
I actually returned to this project earlier this year to get some experience shooting motion and recording sound. Ultimately I’d like to produce a short video featuring these portraits intermixed with interviews and video of the workers in action.

© Shawn G. Henry