On Choosing the Best Subjects

Photographer at Work. Photo by Alina Oswald.

On the importance of choosing the best possible subject/model for a visual story or photography project

Subjects might or might not make or break a story, but they can definitely help us tell the strongest story possible. Choosing the right subject for a particular story–be that a story told in words or a visual story or a photo project–is an important piece of the storytelling puzzle.

So, what exactly is a perfect subject or model, if there even is such a thing?

As someone who has covered HIV and AIDS for years, and as a lifelong, devoted Freddie Mercury fan, I have been following the news updates regarding the upcoming Freddie Mercury biopic and the growing list of actors who would play Freddie. And it seems that, as the working title of the movie changes, so does the name of the main actor. Now, truth be told, finding just the right actor to play Freddie Mercury is a challenging task, to say the least. It should be!

That brings me to our challenge, as storytellers, of choosing the best possible subject or model for our story.

When documenting events through photojournalistic work, the story unfolds in front of our eyes. Our job is to capture it as it happens, hopefully in a compelling way.

Flooded street during Hurricane Sandy. Photo by Alina Oswald.
Photographing Hurricane Sandy. Photo by Alina Oswald.
Shuttle Enterprise. Photo by Alina Oswald.
Photographing the shuttle Enterprise being barged up the Hudson to the Intrepid Museum, in NYC. Photo by Alina Oswald.

When working on editorial projects or ad campaigns or any kind of promotional photography work, we need to choose the best models. Many times, we work with makeup artists and hair stylists, and others, as part of a team.

Luxury air travel photography by Alina Oswald.
One last look before taking off. Flying in style. Photo by Alina Oswald.

When looking for the right subject/model for a visual story, as creatives, we should ask ourselves the following question: does the subject/model (and the way we capture them) help bring to life and to viewers’ minds the character we want to create? That’s, in particular, important when the character we try to capture is or was a real person when the story is real.

For example, and going back for a moment to the Freddie Mercury biopic in the making, does the actor supposed to play Freddie Mercury brings to mind Queen’s frontman? Then consider the same actor in hair and makeup, and also clothes that could bring him closer to the character he has to play. Can you now see (in your mind) the resemblance?

In writing, when we bring a character to life, we paint not with makeup, but with words. In their minds, readers can see that character come to life, one word at a time.

In photography, when working on projects, in particular promotional, editorials, and/or ad campaign photography, we often work with makeup artists, hair stylists, and of course, light. But we first need to find the best model possible for our story. For example, a few years ago I photographed the HIV Warriors prevention campaign for ASC-NY. (the nonprofit has since changed its name). Read more about this project in A&U Magazine.

Woman to Woman photography show.
Solitude. Photo by Alina Oswald.

So, in summary, when choosing a subject for a visual story or photo project, consider the following:

  • the goal of your project; what you want to ultimately say through that story (if you have enough creative freedom working on the project, envision that story and think about how you’d tell it visually)
  • envision the perfect subject and try to find someone who comes as close as possible to that image that you have in mind
  • consider lighting setups, makeup, etc that would help bring that image to life
  • consider possible post-production workflow to add the finishing touches
  • analyze the final image to make sure is the visual interpretation of the image you had in mind and that it achieves the goal of your project

Thank you for stopping by!

Alina Oswald

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