It’s a common misconception that photos just fall from the sky. It’s not that people believe in some magic photo fairy (no pun intended), just that few people really think about how the photo happened. When you see a terrifying photo of war or other dangers, rarely would you think “oh yeah, someone had to be on the other end of that camera pushing the shutter release.” As bad as the people in a photo have it, there was a photographer experiencing the same thing, only with 20 pounds of photo gear on their back.
Illustrative photos tend to be taken for granted even more, as they are much more abstract and often etherial. However, a lot of time and effort goes into coming up with the perfect photo to illustrate an idea. A concept must be distilled into its purest form to make sure the viewer gets the intent immediately with all the raw emotion the concept should invoke. This is easier said than done. The photo I took illustrating the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell repeal was just such a photo. I’ve had some questions about what it took to create the photo, so I thought I’d give a behind-the-scenes look, shedding some light on the creative process.
The first thing to remember is that I’m a military photographer working in a public affairs office. I have a true passion for photography and have my own slew of privately-owned gear and photo techniques that your average Defense Information School instructor would scratch their head at. I also happen to be bisexual. When news came of the pending repeal of DADT, my mind spun into high gear. Truthfully, it was an effort to focus my one-track mind on something more useful than obsessing over all the internet media posts about the various views and opinions of the far left and right. The goal was to put seven years of held tongue into a single visual. Not an easy task.
The first step with conceptualizing an illustrative photo is to break the idea down to its basic elements. There was the element of an inability to speak. There was a force restraining that ability and there was something freeing that restraint. Simple, right?
I kept this idea in the back of my mind for the better part of a year, since it took almost that long from the time the repeal legislation was signed until the repeal actually took place. Over that time, the items I would use to represent those three things changed. I also needed to have a recognizable military theme that was obvious, but not too specific, otherwise it would not have the universal appeal. The first iteration involved duct tape over someone’s mouth. That was a simple idea, and I even had cammo duct tape to use. However, it didn’t carry enough weight, and eventually there was another photographer who did a black and white photo with a U.S. flag taped over the service member’s mouth.
Then I had the idea for a chain. This definitely evoked a stronger emotion because a chain is not easily broken or pulled off when you’re the one restrained. This seemed like the answer, but how to signal that restrain being lifted. At first, I thought of a key unlocking a padlock, and that was my idea for the bulk of the time; however, it’s hard to show a lock in action in a photo. The only thing I could come up with is to put some sort of powder on the lock so when it sprung open, it would kick the powder into the air and give the photo a sense of motion. That was a bit of a gamble as to whether it would work or not, and not one with very good odds.
Then it hit me, a bolt cutter would be perfect. This would allow the chain to be seemingly unbroken and more permanent, signifying how many of us thought our silence would never be broken. The bolt cutter also showed an outside force actively cutting the restraints, never to be used again.
It was a solid concept. Now to pull it off.
A friend of mine, Caleb Sutton from Misawa Air Base, was visiting Tokyo at the time. He’s a fairly attractive guy, so I asked him if he’d be my model. He agreed. To this day, I joke with him that I’m not sure what I was more excited about, getting a great photo to illustrate the concept, or the fact that I chained-up a cute gay guy to do it. The shoot was a lot of fun, despite some challenges putting it all together. It was shot in an apartment building parking lot, with two Nikon Speedlights creating impromptu studio lighting. The chain kept sliding down Caleb’s chin, but thankfully we had someone with us to hold it up from behind. After a bit of time tweaking and adjusting lighting, and a very patient Caleb, we finally got the shot. A bit of Photoshop post production finished off the gritty harshness of the photo.
I think this is arguably my first “political photo.” I’m a fairly easy-going guy, so I don’t generally feel so strongly about something that it evokes such a stark image in my mind. I tend to go for street and travel photography, in no small part due to my training as a photojournalist. This offered a unique opportunity to break away from my usual schtick, and it has been really rewarding to see it embraced by people of all walks of life. I equate this to the photographic version of a commentary – a thousand words streamlined into a single, poetic image. It’s the kind of thing I’m just glad to have out there, and to have been a part of.