One of the hardest environments to make good photos is in exotic, sensational situations. This may not be evident on the surface; after all, what better place could there be to get a great photo than someplace where strange and unusual things are going on? What ends up happening, more often than not, is that all the juice of the image is in the subject, often of a sort we've seen a thousand times before. It's the Lonely Planet syndrome—exotic-natives-that-don't-look-like-us photos. The elements that make a good photograph, regardless of subject, are often not in the equation.
The Fremont Solstice Parade is about as rife a target for this sort of photography as you can find in Seattle. Outrageous costumes, a plethora of nudity—it can be hard to bring anything personal or unique to this kind of situation. That didn't appear to dissuade anyone—I don't think I've ever seen such a density of high end DSLR cameras as I did today at the Parade.
I've been going to and taking photos at this parade for over 20 years. I can't claim I'm not subject to the Lonely Planet syndrome myself, but it's in my mind constantly. How can I make something of this situation that is primarily photographic, and not merely sensational?
One tactic I used today was to see where the photographers were aiming at, and go elsewhere. They, of course, were ringing the staging area for the naked bicyclists—all guys, with long lenses, behind a yellow tape. Once upon a time I could wander among the cyclists, make a connection, and I could feel like we made a photograph together of something other than about a voyeuristic gaze. Now, it's almost staged to be only that. I turned my back on that scene, and looked elsewhere.
People in colorful costumes, tall pointy hats, on stilts—well, it's hard for that not to be about a photograph of people in tall pointy hats, colorfully dressed, some of them on stilts. What I did was, I stood in one spot and watched how the components of a frame could come together. It's like street photography anywhere. Set the frame, wait for the moment to enter. I'm trying to make a photograph here, not just exploit the strangeness.
The strangeness, of course, can't help but be my subject. It's where I am, a strange place. But I try and organize my response to the strangeness from a photographic point of view, and from a desire to obtain a connection from my subject, when I can. I'm chasing photographs here, not trophies.
A good test of the power of such photographs is to consider: if the subject of the image were not some exotic native of a strange land, but someone or something ordinary, would it still make a good photograph? Would there be a compelling narrative, or organization of the frame, or some treatment that kept the intrigue? Does the subject matter add to those elements, or merely replace them?
My photos of the naked bicyclists—they mostly fail that test. That subject matter swamps my ability to respond. I guess I was looking at mostly one thing. The rest now—they have some potential.
See more on my Flickr Photostream: http://www.flickr.com/photos/dougplummer/ (You may need to be logged in and have your settings set to Moderate to see the naughty ones.)