The image as used in the Financial Times
A few months back I got a call from the picture desk at the FT asking if I was interested in a commission, the job would involve photographing a philosophy debate. Naturally with these kind of phone calls the first reaction is one of excitement, followed rapidly by dread as you try to piece together all the information and figure how you can make everything come together and create a decent picture out of it all. One part of you starts to over visualise what you might face whilst the rational part of your brain tells you not to make too many second guesses, as you’ll only arrive to find it wasn’t at all what you imagined.
When this call came in I was aware that I had a friend of a friend who was keen to do some free assisting; something he needed to do as part of one of his study modules. As much as I feared this could potentially be a very boring job for someone to assist on I also felt that I could probably really do with another pair of hands. As it happens they came in very useful.
I arrived at Conway Hall in London, which having been to before, I was aware was a potentially interesting venue. First things first I ran around planning the portraits I would have to take. Getting six philosophers to sit still and have their picture taken is no easy feat, especially when some of them haven’t seen each other for a few years and want nothing more to launch quickly into intellectually stimulating banter. Invariably when shooting group shots you end up with that classic thought process mid photo of “I’ll just talk out of the side of my mouth an no one will notice” which invariably leads to photos of people looking like they are in various stages of a seizure. To make matters worse one of my flashes ran out of juice halfway through the shoot and started firing every other shot, leaving me without a separation light and annoyingly in my haste I hadn't packed spares.
The group portrait - can be hard to make a clean composition
With the group portraits quickly shot and out of the way the debate was started. So far I wasn’t happy, I felt the pictures of the group were mediocre at best, and I was beginning to panic as I was faced with a stage based debate with powerpoint…yes powerpoint. I could see the chances of getting anything decent slipping from my grasp. I decided to claim my free glass of wine at this point, retire into the shade and watch from the balcony whilst I considered my options. To add to my paranoia, Mark, who was assisting, and doing so as part of his University coursework, started to take notes. I can only imagine what he was writing.
The stage once the powerpoint began - rather uninspiring
It was whilst the debate was going on and questions started to be fielded by the audience that I had my epiphany moment. I suddenly realised that the audience were much important to this story than I had given them credit for. After all they were the ones who had ventured out to this event, they were the ones asking the questions, the ones who really fired up the debate. I decided that they need to be photographed. But how to do so - that was the question. The hall was dark, with a lot of light absorbing wood paneling, the lights were dim, and there was no way I could shoot it without flash. This meant any chance of candid shots mid discussion were ruled out, there was no way to go under the radar. After the debate on stage finished the audience broke into groups to have discussions amongst themselves. As they chatted amongst themselves I struck upon the idea that these groups reminded me of the classic scenes of old, a kind of scene of the enlightenment. I immediately thought of the great Caravaggio paintings such as Supper at Emmaus (1601). I decided at this point to make the most of having Mark there. I rigged up an Elinchrom Quadra flash with a Rotalux Octa, gave Mark the most basic of instruction and sent him to work as a voice activated light stand. Now I had a large light source coming in at an angle to my subjects, the Octa softening the light slightly so that is acted like a large window. I balanced the ambient so that the fall off was sudden and left plenty of areas of shadow which I felt helped add a sense of mystery whilst mimicking Caravaggio's use of light in his paintings.
Carravagio's painting Supper at Emmaus (1601)
I worked from group to group, as the audience hadn't been warned of my presence beforehand I had to read each situation independently, some people didn't bat an eyelid, whilst others most certainly. One chap glared at me for a good while even once I'd assured him I wouldn't get him in my shot. I'm not sure what his issue was, maybe his wife thought he was having an affair and he didn't want her to find he was actually attending a philosophy club. But in all seriousness in those situations you have to respect someone's privacy if they so wish, but it certainly makes it tough when you're up against the clock.
As I was shooting with this set up I realised fairly quickly that there was definitely potential in it as long as I could work the situation, adjusting position and subject until all the elements came together. Having Mark mobile with the light meant I could be a lot more fluid than had I been using a light stand - it meant I could react to a dynamic situation that much easier. The final group had all the right elements, a nice diverse bunch of subjects who were animated and happy to ignore me. As I snapped away, what Cartier-Bresson referred to as the decisive moment seem to appear, gradually things come together for one or two moments where everything seemed in the right place and I ended up with two shots I was super happy with. I have to reiterate that this is rare for me. Usually my client is happy with my shots but I always feel that I could have done better - it was refreshing to hear that even someone with has much experience as Gregory Heisler feels this at times too (see this interview on a photo editor). But this was one of those situations where I felt I had exceeded my own expectations...and that is the kind of photographic high you just can't beat.
The final two images that I felt most nailed the brief