TIAA #19: “People”

Tosin’s Images & Anecdotes (TIAA) is my self-assigned photography challenge of 2022. The immediate objective is to select one image from my inventory (a cityscape, landscape, portrait, oddity, etc.) each week and write something about it. This “something” could be the story behind the photo, a triggered memory in relation to the photo, or simply a reaction or reflection based on the subject matter featured. The long-term objective is to encourage myself to add more content to “La Vue Atypique”, which celebrates its first decade in publication this year.

DESC Annual Staff Meeting @ The Westin Hotel / Seattle / April 14, 2022

What can I say about the photograph above?

More than a decade ago, I started to produce and deliver what I had hoped would be seen and appreciated as magnificent images of Earth’s metropolises. Such locations included what I wanted to portray as exciting, illuminating, and vibrant locations like Hong Kong, Paris, Toronto and Honolulu. My primary goal was to establish myself as a professional photographer with a specialization in producing high quality cityscapes and urban landscapes at night and from the air.

  • Aerial view of Honolulu, Hawaii.
  • Hong Kong, China (August 2010)

Alas, you might imagine my utter discombobulation when I started receiving requests to photograph people, specifically individual portraits, family portraits, and — forever to my disbelief — weddings. In many ways, it was simultaneously humorous and confusing for me because, according to all my research, if I market the images that I profess to love and excel in producing, I will receive customers who are chiefly interested in those images.

At the same time, my dad has always supplied his quirky wisdom, including: “life is not linear”; and “two plus two does not always equal four”; and “within the word ‘nonsense’ lies the word ‘sense’.” In other words, logic can often be defied, and no beings on our planet may be more capable of defying logic than human beings. At the same time, this behavior can often yield unexpected results, be them advantageous, disadvantageous, or serendipitous. (Coincidentally, my father just sent me a text wishing me a good Friday as I typed about his sayings. Talk about fascinating timing as he has no idea I’m discussing him right now).

One of my very first “non-cityscape” customers was a student who knew two years ahead of her graduation that she wanted me, exclusively, to capture her high school senior year portraits. She had seen my photographs of Hong Kong that her mother (who was my colleague) shared with her back in 2010. Her daughter had determined: “If Tosin can do this with a city, imagine what he can do with people.” When September 2012 approached, sure enough, the daughter had not changed her mind and I captured her portraits. I would eventually do the same for her younger brother a few years later.

To be honest, I was flabbergasted, humbled, and honored that someone had that kind of vision upon seeing my cityscapes and could make that consideration. I remember how nervous I was for this photo shoot because, simply put, it wasn’t the service I advertised via my website — but “life is not linear”. I think a different customer who requested family portraits after seeing my collection summarized my thoughts best. To paraphrase, she said, “You’re excellent at capturing images in which you specialize but now you must deal with the challenge of capturing subject matter that can talk to you.”

“When Lambs Feast on Forbidden Fruit” / Photo of Kirk DeMatas from “Conversations with Skeletons”

She hit the nail on the head, but the experience of photographing people — oddly — became easier the more that I took on these requests and assignments. I wasn’t expecting that. I was able to sharpen this skill more when my best friend asked me to photograph the images that would appear in his second publication of poetry, titled “Conversations with Skeletons”. This involved traveling to Toronto back in 2011 and collaborating with Kirk on a schedule alongside logistics involving multiple locations around the city. The way he had organized the entire photo shoot, in retrospect, was probably one of the very first encounters I had that bordered on a commercial photography shoot. (He’s that organized, folks). Nevertheless, at its core, this was portrait photography, through and through. You can view some of the images here. It remains some of my most creative work in capturing people on camera.

As a result of these previous experiences, both portrait photography and event photography are services TIA offers today alongside its original cityscape and aerial photography.

This week’s feature photo is significant because it is the first occasion in which I had to capture this many individuals in one image. I’m no stranger to group photos given my experience over the years, but I don’t think I had ever had to capture a group this large.

The image was captured at an annual staff meeting for Seattle’s Downtown Emergency Services Center (DESC), a nonprofit organization whose primary mission is reducing the Emerald City’s abject homelessness, an epidemic that became pervasive after the Great Recession circa 2008. Seattle, among several American cities, has never recovered from this event, and many of its people have suffered as a result. DESC’s goal is to provide housing (such as furnished apartments), healthcare, and educational programs for the homeless, including those who experience mental illness. Put more bluntly, DESC’s long-term objective is to eliminate homelessness in Seattle. The work this organization does is remarkable to me. TIA is a volunteer photographer for DESC as well as a monthly donor to their mission. I want to make sure to note that DESC serves the entire city of Seattle, not just downtown. The organization has accomplished quite a bit in 2022, including the grand opening of a brand new housing complex in January. This is one of the 14 housing facilities that DESC has established in Seattle.

Interestingly, the invitation to the staff meeting was sent to more than 300 people! Given my calculation, the group photo features between 150 and 200 people, so the idea that this photo doesn’t feature DESC’s entire staff boggles my mind. For me, the higher the number of people in the group, the greater the challenge to capture them all on camera. Fortunately, the purchase of my 16-35mm wide angle lens years ago was made for such occasions, and was put to the test on the day this group photo was taken!

After working with my contact at DESC, we coordinated with the organizers and managed to get all the attendees together near the stage in the conference room. It took about 10 minutes to make sure everyone appeared within Ananda’s frame. (Ananda is the name of my trusty Sony Alpha 99 full frame camera). The coordination felt like a small Hollywood production of getting all the cast and crew together for an end-of-season group photograph. I was dealing with hundreds of human beings, so there were several occasions of people talking back to me when I communicated with them — something I would have been uncomfortable with a decade ago. Eventually, we were able to get everyone within the frame, and I took a series of shots in anticipation that a few of them would be gems. Fortunately, that turned out to be the case afterwards.

The final point I’ll make about this image is that I wanted to post something to counter the negative and dark news we’ve seen in recent days, including a series of hate crimes against people of color in Texas, New York, and California. The news often makes me forget that while there is a lot of darkness and morbidity among people in our planet, there is good as well. To the disadvantage of our collective psyches, the media rarely ever reports the good news, altruism, or the good that people do and accomplish. This has always bothered me throughout my life because I often query whether or not I’m a morbid or despairing individual. (I don’t think I am, but I question this about myself often). Nevertheless, knowing how many people are vested in reducing Seattle’s most debilitating social issue — and getting a chance to see it for myself via photography — frequently gives me a few moments of gratitude and optimism.

You can view a collection of my portrait photography here.


20 articles down for the TIAA challenge. 32 remain!

One Comment Add yours

  1. Kirk. says:

    Inspiring to hear how through your passion as a photographer, you became exposed and aware of the good an organization like DESC does – a gift of hope! Also: thank you for including the work you did for “Conversations with Skeletons” here! So proud of the project!

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