What Would Dorothea Do?

Much internet fury has been leveled at AFP Photographer Joe Klamar for his rather unfortunate (in my personal opinion) portfolio of photos of the 2012 U.S. Olympic athletes. In private conversation, I have contributed to the deluge of different approaches we’re all convinced we would have taken were we to find ourselves in the same scenario. But candidly, none of us have any idea whether our results would have proved superior, because none of us were there. So let’s just put our judgements – and they are many – aside for now. 

I will admit, however, that this incident has left me troubled. Today, Joe Klamar finally released an explanation of sorts, citing not the deliberate fly-in-the-face-of-athletic-prowess vision some had interpreted in the photos, but a lack of preparation as the root cause of the awkward portraits.

“I was under the impression that I was going to be photographing athletes on a stage or during press conference where I would take their headshots for our archives,” [Klamar] explained. “I really had no idea that there would be a possibility for setting up a studio.” (Source: PetaPixel)

Okay. I’ll take his word for that, and I’ll even relate. Who among us hasn’t felt that moment of sickening panic upon realizing that the scenario you planned for is the exact opposite of the one you’re in? 

But what sets us apart in moments like these is what we’re capable of creating under less-than-ideal circumstances. I can’t help but imagine what Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Gordon Parks and other unarguably great photographers I grew up idolizing could have produced with two cameras, three lenses, one flash and a 12-inch laptop.

We have more technology, ease, convenience and waste available to us today than my childhood heroes ever dreamed of. And yet, the quality, the integrity and the character of their work puts the vast majority of today’s images to shame. 

I hope our Olympian portraits can serve as a reminder that when we think we have too little to work with, we can leverage our constraints and find a source of creativity that might have otherwise eluded us.

Of course, if that’s too difficult, we can always blame our circumstances. 

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