Austerity for Photography

OR: WHY LESS REALLY IS MORE

So I woke up this morning to another comment on my blog from a chap called Michael. He said:

One thing you missed in the reasons why we like photos. They are a massively useful tool for convincing non-larpers to give it a try. No words can convince a person that LARP is more than just a bunch of sweaty nerds in cheap costume waving toy swords around quite as effectively as a picture of neat Roman battle lines squaring off against a horde of Carthaginians.

Over the past eighteen months I’ve had a fair amount of disappointed players ask if I can put all my photographs online, even the outtakes. Last week it was suggested to me on a forum (I can’t find where though now) that perhaps I could even publish my ‘outtakes’ under a different name just so that people had a chance at seeing themselves.

There is a huge amount of demand for me to publish ‘just one more’ picture from my collection of images so that someone can see themselves. I’ve done this before once when I made a video of my editing workflow and a shot caught someones eye. It’s something I don’t make a habit of.

Shall I show you why I don’t make a habit of it? Here are some of the kinder outtakes from the last Odyssey. With my deepest apologies to my friends.

Here is a photograph where the subject is primarily out of focus, there is motion blur because my shutter speed was too low and it’s just generally poorly composed:

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Here is a photo with poor timing where poor Tom is getting stabbed in the eye with a foam sword. Which admittedly was better than breaking multiple fingers during takedown:

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Here is a photo where Harry looks like he’s been suffering from insomnia for six weeks and is willing the game to be over. No, that’s not all make up… (I jest of course). And his costume doesn’t seem to be fitting properly. It’s also out of focus:

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Here is a photo of Illiani doing… well I don’t quite know what he’s doing, it was one of those unfortunate timing moments where he was pulling a stupid face and doing something weird that makes his neck disappear. One thing I do know for sure though, is that this is not a photograph of the Beast of Carthage:

_MG_8704proofYou get the idea.

I also get lots of moments like this, where I choose one or two from a handful of very similar image:

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This is before we begin to talk those other moments we know and love about Odyssey; the underwear malfunctions, the accidental lunges and yes my favourite moment during post-processing: the penis houdinis.

One of the most convincing arguments for not just blindly processing all my Odyssey photographs and sticking them online, is that there would be far too many pictures of accidental cock slippage introduced into the LRP hobby.

I’m saving y’all from yourselves, honestly. You wouldn’t thank me. There’s nothing sexy about a stray Carthaginian knob. (I was promised golden phalluses Mr Andrews – instead you gave me this to deal with after each event.)


Bad photography, stupid faces and escapee penises aside, there’s a serious point here.

I strive to take great pictures that look like they could have been shot on a movie set because I think that LRP is cool. I mean seriously, this is a cool hobby. I know that lots of people inside the hobby think it’s not, but as an outsider looking in I can tell you that it really is.

The quote at the top of this post can from one a made a few days ago where I briefly mused on Shit Photos vs No Photos. I don’t think I really expressed myself very well on that point, so I’m going to expand it further here.

Cultivating an image of something visually is as much about what you leave out as what you put in. When that something is an event that has traditionally been considered ‘sad’, ‘weird’ and basically the bottom of the geek-pile it can be challenging to attempt to find the right way to express how cool it is in a way that outsiders and other people understand.

Last year after the first Odyssey Annual that I shot, MattP – our omnibenevolent god – posted this image on his Facebook:

1016512_434311190010331_554395338_nPlease, no more abuse related to the fact that his grammar is awful. He went through that last year.

I’m going to also post what he wrote about it:

I don’t generally go in for wasting my life making demotivational posters, but I love this picture so much that I wanted to use it to illustrate a very serious point. This is a great picture – firstly it’s an amazing set – we’ve had the Odyssey set for a while so we tend to forget that. Secondly the kit is fantastic. You’d expect Big Richard to have great kit of course and it helps that he’s built like a brick shithouse, but everyone’s kit in the photo is great.


And the net result? It doesn’t look good, no, no, no, no, no. It looks cool. It looks fucking *cool*. Look at that picture. I wish I was *that* cool. Fuck you Hollywood, take your six pound two hour long Too Facile Too Futile experience and shove it up your ass because I want to be as cool as the bad-ass dudes in this photo.


I’ve picked this photo from Odyssey, but it could have been Empire, it could have been from DC or HnD. It could have been from a few games over here or from one of scores of games on the continent that I’ve seen. And that’s the critical point, it’s not a one-off carefully staged photo – it’s a snapshot of a part of the hobby now.


LRPs is developing in so many ways and there are many great games that don’t focus on the visual spectacle. But many of us are used to thinking of our hobby as something to be hidden away from ridicule – and in the 90s much of what we did looked pretty ridiculous. Mum’s old curtains, trainers, jeans, gaffa weapons and people shouting fireball. It was cool in our head, but we were painfully aware that to anyone watching it, it was as cool as two twenty-five year olds playing Mary and Joseph in the infant’s school nativity play.


But LRP has come of age. It’s as fun as it ever was – but now it’s fucking cool.

I must remember to chastise him for referring to my work as a ‘snapshot’, but other than that I think he says what I’m trying to say very well.

The hobby generally looks pretty cool. Well at the events I’ve been to anyway. But it still does require a bit of careful cultivation to keep up with the Joneses, so to speak.

No words can convince a person that LARP is more than just a bunch of sweaty nerds in cheap costume waving toy swords around quite as effectively as a picture of neat Roman battle lines squaring off against a horde of Carthaginians.

This is really interesting, going back to how I opened this post. I’ve read a little Odyssey fiction and I find some of it really rather exciting. However in conversation on Facebook I expressed my frustration that it was so often kept behind closed doors and not available to the general public without signing up for websites and being allowed in by a gatekeeper.

Privately one of my friends pointed out that this was at least in part due to the fact that lots of people think that their homemade efforts at fanfic aren’t actually that great and don’t make the hobby look very good. The stuff that gets out more widely tends to be better.

So I found this fascinating. And I’ll say now, this was just one friends opinion and I don’t know how wide spread this view is, but in my brain I made the link to photographs that people take at LRP who aren’t what I would consider to be ‘photographers’. In this sense a photographer, to me, is someone who is attempting to express something (hopefully successfully) beyond ‘I was there’.

Why isn’t there this sense in the LRP community about photography?

If someone writes bad fanfic that includes your character then that might make you remember something poorly. It might be inaccurate for example or suggest that your character did something that they did not. In my mind the same is true about photography. If a photograph is produced about your character that portrays them in a different light to the person they are (see the Illiani shot above) then doesn’t that impact the way you feel about them?

Of course this doesn’t mean that I get it right with my own photographs, but I think that I scrutinise them a little more closely than many people do. I try to avoid weird face pulling moments, I try to pick images which seem to tell a story and if I know a character then I try to choose photographs that show off the characters personality. While I’m processing of course, not generally while I’m capturing them at the event.

I feel personally that this kind of thing is a basic responsibility to the people that I’m photographing. It’s my job as a photographer to not show images of people that don’t show them in a flattering way. Of course that’s subjective for each photographer, but when I see snaps that people have taken where people are gurning or half way through a blink, for example, I have to wonder why they would present those images publicly. I know that people have photographed me several times at LRP events and I’ve quietly rejected the tag, because a picture of me with my front teeth sticking out and a massive spot on my cheek isn’t something I want to be reminded of every time I look at my pictures on Facebook. I look hideous when I am photographed laughing or smiling, thanks to an unfortunate foot-teeth (and no mouthguard) incident while playing water polo. I don’t need to be reminded of it in pictures that lots of people are going to look at. I’m sure lots of other people feel the same.


 

So I was chattering about these things with Simon (our not so benevolent Odyssey overlord) a while ago since we both have interests in photography and overthinking things and he came up with something interesting. He said bad photos of LRP are like bootleg CD’s of good gigs. The quality is a bit dubious, some people like to listen to them to remind them of the experience, but they’re never going to do the performers any favours.

And you know what, he’s right. I remember getting hold of a bootleg Placebo CD from a dodgy market stall when I was about 14. The CD convinced me not to pay to go and see their gig because I thought if it sounded anything like that then I really didn’t want to go. Actually I saw Placebo play at Leeds Festival a few years later and they were blindingly good, I even managed to get hypothermia between them and Stereophonics after crowd surfing in the rain.

Anyway.

I think it would be interesting from an academic point of view to do some research into the effect that images have on people deciding to come to try LRP for the first time. There must be some kind of blind test you could do, showing control groups different sets of images. Perhaps that’s something for the future. Not for any particular reason other than I’m interested.

ETA: Simon just told me that I misunderstood him, he was talking about people who sell CD’s of phone images of gigs on eBay. Seriously. I misunderstood him because I didn’t even believe that could be a thing.


Where was I going with this. Putting all the images online, that was it.

Leaving out images that don’t portray the world accurately is as important as including images that do. Unfortunately I can’t do that as much as I’d like to do because players love to see pictures of themselves – understandably so.

Last winter, when I was sulking because there was no LRP to photograph, I entertained myself with a little exercise. I went through and picked out a small portfolio of images from each event that were my favourites. I limited myself each time to about 20 images or so. So that you can see what I’m talking about, here are my portfolio selects from Odyssey 7.

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If I did it again, I’d probably cut it down to about ten final images.

It’s not that I don’t think that LRP isn’t full of cool moments, but rather than it’s often full of cool moments that aren’t actually very easy to capture with an image. Showing only the very best of those would be preferable to me personally, showing lots of them is a compromise.

Through my photographs I’d love to make everyone who has even an ounce of doubt that what they’re doing is fantastically cool believe that it is. Because it is.


Currently doing the rounds is a set of images from what I think is a Czech LRP. It’s a Western anyway and it looks fucking awesome. The photographers bad-ass skills are generally adding to the amount of fucking awesomeness in no short amount.

There’s just 24 images here, but don’t they really capture the feel of the event from an outsiders perspective? Don’t they make you want to go? Don’t they manage to tell stories without being repetitive?

That’s my main frustration with putting up hundreds of images of an event, it just feels repetitive. It’s often just the same photograph shot over and over with different participants. From the last Annual there are probably only 20 images or so that I really feel tell a story. That’s mostly my problem at not being good enough at photography yet, but I’m working on it and I feel like every event my story telling improves. This is a huge thing for me because I was turned down to study photography at university because my story telling wasn’t good enough. It might have become a bit of a personal crusade.


So less is more, restraint with photography is good and selectively displaying images helps to create a tighter and more awesome public face of a game. Images that tell stories are the way forwards from my point of view. Telling stories with an image is different to looking at it and remembering the story. To tell the story you have to successfully communicate something to someone with no recollection of the event because they were not there.

But you’re never going to get away from the fact that everyone wants to see a nice picture of themselves in their kit.