The girls were waiting for me when I arrived.
I’d been in two cabs, a plane, a ferry and a Mini Cooper, and was finally at my destination for the next 24 hours: The Nature Conservancy’s headquarters on Block Island. Two of the girls were reading on the deck.
“Hi, I’m Ne NE!”
Their eyes sparkled and they were full of life and sass. Chantia and Eryn joined them from inside.
They wasted no time. “We want to give you a tour of the island. Are you ready?”
I dumped the bags in my room, randomly grabbing one camera and a lens; I really had no intentions of shooting—it was just a tour and I barely knew the girls so, what was I going to get from them?
The previous week I’d been in Georgia photographing a different set of the Conservancy’s LEAF students; I’d had two full days. I was a little nervous about getting anything good with this group. My job was to fully ‘document the LEAF experience’, but this time, in a day.
We drove through town and the girls didn’t stop talking. They spewed the history of Block Island, blurting out dates and names of settlers and other random facts; the only town on the island is New Shoreham, and the island is on the path of the Atlantic Flyway, and is an important resting area for birds. I learned about invasive species, and that there are two lighthouses on the island, North Lighthouse and South. On the other hand, my only knowledge of Block Island was from a line in a 1989 Billy Joel song—pathetic. They were talking encyclopedias—excited about what they’d learned, and wanting to share it.
The sun began to set. Our tour was charted as a drive around the entire island, but we got out at North Beach to check out North lighthouse and watch the sky for a moment.
“Why don’t we take a walk on the beach?” Selfishly, I wanted to get my feet in the sand and smell the air.
Without hesitation, flip flops flew off and the girls were chatting away about life, and their school, and the LEAF program and how they had never seen the water and the sunset in the same place before. Ne Ne had never seen the ocean before. They picked up shells, collected rocks. They played. They skipped and ran, threw sand at each other, carved words on the beach, and arranged pink and gray water smoothed stones to read “BI 2011.”
I remained silent, listening, watching and waiting. The sky was on fire, and the light was pink—a perfect color for five women. The surf cajoled the rocks, and the seagulls flew overhead.
Photographing people can be done many ways. For the past 13 years I’ve been photographing people and animals. I have found over the years that pulling out a camera immediately—whether it’s for a person or a dog—never results in the kind of images I’m looking for. People and animals (believe it or not) need to gain a trust, and an ease; they need to be comfortable with your presence, so that they are able to forget you are there. Without trust from a subject, the images lack intimacy.
I saw an image I wanted to make. I called the girls over to the edge of the beach—they seemed comfortable enough with me. I love to play with silhouettes and hoped that what I wanted to do would work—North Lighthouse was at the end of the beach, and the scene was gorgeous.
I crouched low on the ground, talking all the time trying to drown out the fact that I was making a picture. I pointed out a sailboat on the horizon to focus their attention in the direction I wanted their heads turned. Finally, all turned in the same direction, I started to shoot.
The important factor in a silhouette shot is to have the separation of lines, and to have those lines define the subject. The silhouette of the back of a head is not effective, as it looks like a black hole. If the subject turns just a bit, and the lips or nose or eyelashes show, the silhouette starts to become stronger, more defined. When shooting four subjects in the same shot, it’s even more difficult to get the lines you want—especially four excited young women. I was struggling with the separation of lines, as the girls were constantly moving, and no one’s head was turned the right way at the right time. Finally, Chantia raised her hand, and her knees separated for a moment as the sun streamed through. I captured the moment, and several others after.
It’s not the perfect shot. The photo editor in me sees many flaws with it. The frame following this shot was a better composition, Ada (far right) had dropped her hand and it found it’s way into the right side of the shot making a really nice anchor. But at the same time, Chantia (pointing) had moved her legs, so the lovely sparkle at her knee was gone…
The line of girls quickly broke up—a massive flock of seagulls on the sand captured the challenge of a race to see who could scare them into the air first. I’d only been there an hour, but I could see it already. The Nature Conservancy’s LEAF program connected these girls with nature and the environment as they’d never been before. Ne Ne, Ada and Chantia were not performing for me. They were drunk on the experience they were having—the hard but rewarding work during the days, and the sand between their painted toes in the evening. They were devouring it all.
As the sun set that evening, I was no longer worried about the short 24 hours I had to cover the LEAF experience with these four. Perhaps it was their personalities, or perhaps mine, but the connection and trust that’s built between photographer and subject was there almost immediately; which is not the way it usually is. So, don’t ever leave the camera behind; you might end up with subjects high on life and thrilled to share that with you from the second you show up.
Photo shot with a Canon EOS 5d MarkII and a Canon 24-70 Lens at f14 1/100 second.
Karine Aigner is a Washington, DC based freelance photographer and photo editor focused on wildlife and conservation issues. You can see more of her work at www.karineaigner.com