On Hallowed Ground

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Assignment ConstructThe call came in at 1:30 on a Friday, while I was gathered with several photographer friends at our local Pho restaurant, and the assignment was for the upcoming Sunday.


This client was an award-winning production company that wanted to make a signature image of two mothers who, on the same day - Mother’s Day - lost their sons in the war effort, and both were buried side by side, which is how the women met. The client was turning to me to produce the image of the real mothers, and they were also producing a television production that would tell their story.

Because I was working with two people, and two additional “people” elements, I wanted my 5’ Chimera softbox. Having that much surface to light, and to be beating down a backlit sun, I chose my 2400 w/s bi-tube head, as the objective was f11 at 250th.


Assignment ConstructI advised the client that we needed permission to make the photo, and that they’d need to make those arrangements, as I was out of pocket for the remainder of the day, and I provided counsel as to how to pass through some of the red tape involved in doing so. Knowing that it was to be a lit portrait, and that there was no way there would be power, my Hensel battery-packs were the only way for me to go, and I called my most trusted assistant for this project, as it was a one-time opportunity, as the mothers only come once a month, when they can, and one of the two hadn’t been back to Arlington in many months, and wouldn’t be again, and by then, the trees would be bare, or it would be too cold, and the weather forecast for Sunday was blue skies.


We opted to travel very light, no carts, no extra lenses. All of that equipment remained in the production vehicle, nearby. We wanted our “footprint” to literally be just our feet. No lightstands - the assistant would hold the pole. The mothers had a meeting scheduled for 2pm, so we arrived at 1pm just to meet them, and help them to become comfortable with us. At this point, all the equipment was in the vehicle. We wanted it to just be us, to start.

As 2pm arrived, they went over to meet with other mothers, leaving my assistant and I to determine best angles, and so forth. Although there were only the two women, the role of the sons was a critical element, which meant that their headstones would almost become additional “people” in the photograph.

As the sun continued to set, the shadows and tops of the rest of the headstones became more pronounced, and when the mothers returned, we were 100% ready to go. Other than asking them where to stand, I didn’t want to give directions as to expressions, gestures, and so forth. I wanted the results to be organic, and I would just continue to make photos.

While some of the images had the mothers smiling, it was more their natural reaction to being photographed, than the weight and severity of the burden they bore. I didn’t want to say “don’t smile”, because I wanted their genuine reaction.

Assignment ConstructWe paused, and I asked the mothers what they normally do when they’re there, visiting with their sons. They responded that they normally will sit down with them, and they both took solace in the headstones themselves, and they moved there. Several images we have have the mothers looking eyes-forward to the camera, which look great, but as I was waiting for the strobe packs to recycle, I noticed that the mothers were “being themselves”, and not looking at the camera. So, I distrupted my rhythm,  and waited a few more seconds than normal, and the one frame that really is real is this one, demonstrating their own suffering in a very visual way. It’s the only frame like it, and it happened – planned – in a fleeting moment. I know that they do not know that it was made, as every other image has them looking at the camera, or each other.

I wanted the focus for the image to be on the women and their immediate space, so I put a tungsten gel over the strobe, and overpowered the sun, causing it to go dark, and blue.

All in all, we spent 29 minutes, according to the timestamp on the first frame, and the last.


The client’s license to use the images begins January of 2008, so I wasn’t in a rush,  generally speaking, to process the images. But when I pulled them up, for no other reason than I wanted to see the one image, I just had to share it with the client. I processed that one, and a few others, and e-mailed them off to the client, which was met with an amazing response of satistaction.

The client’s photography department called the next day, Monday, and wanted the raw files. We make it an absolute habit of not delvering NEF or CR2 files, because of the potential of the stripping/loss of the metadata that is in the XMP sidecars. However, the solution to give the client’s production department the flexibility to work with the images was needed. So, we processed the files, saving them as DNG files without embedding the original, thus giving them a raw file that they can work with, neatly wrapped up in the DNG wrapper, all safe and sound.

We uploaded to their FTP production space all the DNG files, and they were pleased because they can leverage the full dynamic range of the files in Capture One (their package of choice) and we have preserved our metadata.

Final Analysis:

My overarching deference to the loss these mothers experienced was paramount. Everything that I did, or tried to do, was to ensure that we were having the utmost of reverence for their situation. I was as overjoyed with the results as one can be when covering a subject matter such as this.

Posted by John Harrington on 10/17
PeopleOutdoor PortraitsPlacesOutdoors
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