At this point we all know that photography and video are crucial for storytelling and engagement. It is an opportunity to allow a viewer to get a sense of a place or feel connected with the person in the image. But after reviewing the hundreds of admission communications my 12th grader received, the takeaway is that there is a sameness to the visuals (some even still prescribe a staged approach of posing people together!).
A 2019 Shutterstock poll notes, “86% of consumers believe authenticity is an important factor when deciding which brands they like and want to support.” With brands like Levi getting pushback for introducing AI models, we realize that it is even more important to represent brands in an authentic way. Schools are full of interesting people and unique environments. Now that we once again have the opportunity to capture individuals in person, let's be thoughtful about how we represent our communities.
I recently listened to Gael Towey, founding art director, Martha Stewart Living, talk with Martha Stewart on her podcast about their experience launching the magazine. Due to political reasons with Conde Nast, editorial photographers were embargoed from working with MSL. Not wanting to lose this important revenue stream meant saying no to Gale and her team. Working with photographers from Martha Stewart’s books, they introduced a new aesthetic to women's magazines which in turn led to one of the strengths of MSL—its signature photography style. What if higher ed considered moving beyond its traditional approach?
A Unique Perspective
I am drawn to the recent work Sutter Street by Timothy Archibald. The series captures moments at the Academy of Art in San Francisco with a different lens. Yet having worked with Timothy for years on editorial portrait assignments (including a recent shoot for Nobles), I can see his approach come through in this series. As he notes on his website, “I’m the photographer agencies call to make empathetic photographs of things that are a little bit different, a little bit curious. Human, humorous and always soulful.” And that is what comes through in this series: curiosity, humor, and soul.
Archibald has a unique perspective and experience as faculty at Academy of Art. In discussing the project he notes: “In the Fall of 2022 I started to photograph my little world on Sutter Street in San Francisco, CA, a street that became my everyday when I began teaching photography at the school.
“There is a unique situation going on here: I’m a photographer photographing other photographers (my students) for a project they’ve all seen as I develop it on social media. I also have a local awareness of the location. This has allowed me to know the significance of locations, what they collectively mean to us all, as opposed to simply what they look like.
“I have had clients approach me about shooting a commercial job that looks and feels like ‘Sutter Street.’ I do think it’s that ‘insider vibe’ that creatives are attracted to in this collection. Delivering that for a commercial job takes a bit more time invested with the subjects and locations before our shoot day. We don’t always hit that vibe, but we can come awfully close.”
There is no one who will know your campus—or that your community will know—as well as your university photographer. Chief Photographer at Tufts University, Alonso Nichols, notes, “My connection to the community has been a bedrock of my ability to tell stories in an authentic and vital way. It is the basis of trust and it has become part of the aesthetic. Students, alumni, faculty, and other readers/viewers have come to understand that what I create is real. People I photograph or interview connect with me in a way that is genuine and that connection opens doors.”
This familiarity and authenticity comes through in Alonso’s portrayal of Tufts.
In addition to the trust that the community has with the photographer there is access and presence. This ongoing presence shows representation of different aspects of the campus at all times and places.
A Range of Perspectives
While a university photographer can bring about an intimacy with the campus and subjects, it is rare to find a university photographer who can do it all. Just as it can be hard to find a writer who can write a feature and lead a podcast or a designer who can create an admission publication and an animation for a social post. Bringing in outside talent and perspective broadens the narrative, expertise, and perspectives being shared.
When we are selecting photographers for assignments, we are looking not just at their work but also their backgrounds and personal experiences (many photographers have personal work on their websites which gives insight to who they are).
We recently worked with Bowdoin on an assignment photographing Emily Wong, a female alum, who is also a photographer. I immediately knew that I wanted to have Jessica Scranton do the shoot. Not only was I familiar with Jessica’s work, I also had the opportunity to have coffee with her pre-pandemic and her personality is infectious. As Jessica herself notes, “I create authentic imagery by connecting quickly with the people I am photographing. It’s not something that I seek out to do but instead is an inherent personality trait of mine. I am very much myself and that let’s people relax and be comfortable around me while I’m photographing.
“When I met Emily Wong it became very clear that we had many things in common from photography to travel—we even wore very similar clothing! Having instant connections like this are rare and it made for excellent imagery because we both relaxed and sank into the experience together.”
We also worked with Jessica for a photo essay on the Women & Infants Hospital for Medicine@Brown. Again, we knew that her warmth and energy would put people at ease and allow for us to get a story that another photographer may not have been able to achieve. She also had extensive experience photographing women giving birth so we knew that she would connect with the story.
“Photographing at Women and Infants hospital was an incredibly special piece for me. I specialize in international maternal health rights and have photographed women giving birth around the globe. It felt amazing to bring this passion for this subject matter home to the United States and photograph this impactful and meaningful story. I connected deeply with Dr. Methodis Tuuli who was born in Ghana, Africa. We talked about maternal health in Africa and in the United States. This conversation brought us closer and aided our ability to connect in front of the camera,” Jessica says.
To prepare for the assignment we curated a selection of Jessica’s work and talked with her multiple times to ensure that we all had the same vision for the story. From there we stepped back and let her capture the story. I have found that more cooks ruin the shot. Subjects can already be uncomfortable being photographed. Adding an art director looking over the shots and engaging with the photographer can add to that discomfort and also inhibit the chemistry between the photographer and subject. An editor doesn’t attend the interview and the art director does not need to attend the shoot. Plan a detailed shot list, review direction, and let it go from there.
Bring in the motion
Then there is video. Videos can help your story reach a broader audience. A recent article from HubSpot, “How Video Consumption is Changing in 2023,” notes “YouTube viewers are motivated to watch content that teaches them new things, primarily related to their passions, interests, hobbies, or social causes.” In fact, according to HubSpot Blogs research, 13% of consumers watch videos to “explore an interest or passion,” while 11% want to “learn something new.” This seems like a perfect opportunity for higher ed to not just give people a sense of their school but a sense of the curriculum.
This means that your content should be short, engaging, and informative. Also noted is that 36% feel that the quality is somewhat important while another 27% are neutral. Thanks to Tik Tok, viewers are used to home quality production so that means videos don’t have to be commercial-level quality.
Photographer Jared Leeds, a seasoned commercial and editorial photographer, made the leap into video, if not willingly. His experience working with subjects as an editorial portrait photographer meant that he has the skills to engage and direct people in a shoot. He also brings a still photographer’s eye to the framing and composition—something that can be hard for videographers to bring to still photography. While his love is still with photography he notes in The Issue, “I’ve come to really appreciate the depth of layered storytelling that video offers, that photography on its own may not. With video, the creator is often able to tell a more complete story over time. Sound design, music, coloring, and editing create multiple layers that lead to a more fleshed-out, developed mood and narrative.”
Whether your project calls for video or photography there are consistent themes to consider. Selecting the right photographer or videographer for the project is key to representing the subject in an authentic manner. Part of your process should include curating a selection of their work and discussing the direction with them and working with them to plan for the assignment. Then step back and let them connect with the subjects. And never force a shot. Your viewers will know.