COLUMN: Would you go in front of the lens?

Friday, June 18, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 12:23 p.m. CDT, Monday, June 21, 2010

Would you, dear reader, let a photographer into your life?

Considering Columbia has been over-saturated with journalists since the establishment of the School of Journalism in 1908, many of you have probably been photographed by the Missourian or an eager student.

But I speak of allowing a photographer to have deeper access to the private moments of your life. Would you truly allow a photographer access to your private, intimate moments — for weeks or months at a time?

And if you would, why?

I’ve been asking myself — along with people who have been photo subjects — these questions for the past five months.

I’ve been researching the 61st Missouri Photo Workshop, which took place in September 2009 in Festus and Crystal City and the people who let these workshop photographers into their lives.

The workshop serves as a microcosm for the documentary photojournalistic experience. In one week, a photographer must find a photo story and then spend morning until night with their subject.

As a journalist, I ask to see the most intimate, emotional and sometimes difficult moments of my subject’s life — all in the name of getting the story.

As a photojournalist, this is an even bigger undertaking.

A writer does not need, per se, to bear witness to these moments — for them to be recalled in an interview is enough. But a photojournalist must view and capture these moments in real time.

I was told ad nauseam throughout my education, “People want to have their story told,” but I was suspicious that this was not the case; As much as I loved journalism— I suspected that the profession was infected with a light strain of opportunistic voyeurism.

The nine photo story subjects I interviewed all described the experience as being awkward at first. One of my interviewees, Annette Bauman, said multiple times that she’s “not a picture person.”

Most said that it became less awkward as the week went on, as they became accustomed to their photographer and being in front of the lens.

Jason and Sara O’Shea, who homeschool their four children, were photographed during the workshop by photographer Michele Kraus. The O’Sheas said the experience became a family-like affair.

“I think it very quickly stopped feeling like someone was at our house doing a documentary,” Jason O’Shea said. “It more felt like we had a family member over that we don’t get to see a lot, so she wanted to take a lot of pictures ... I know that it sounds silly, she (Kraus) was only here three or four days, but it was almost like she was more of a little sister and she was just taking pictures of family.”

Jason O’Shea thought the photos that were taken by Kraus were “phenomenal.”

“They capture what our life is really about,” O’Shea said. “I guess in a way (the photos) made a difference because I realized that when I look at those pictures, they really do capture a lot of what is important to me and that helped me to realize, I guess, that the direction our lives are going is the direction I want them to go. ...I felt the pictures were, to a great extent, an affirmation of the fact that our life is really what I want it to be.”

Private moments were also photographed. Laverne Austin, a resident of Crystal City who lives with a rare form of multiple sclerosis was photographed by John Liau during the workshop.

“John didn’t mind coming in the bedroom,” Austin said. “I’d be getting ready to put something on and the he’d be with his camera going, click click click. I’d say, ‘How long have you been here? I’m going to tell on you to your fiancé.’”

To me, the most amazing story I heard was that of the Bauman family. Annette and Josh Bauman have two sons, Jackson and Kade.  Kade, who is now 2 years old, could not support his head, crawl or talk because of multiple medical conditions including epilepsy, cortical vision impairment and hypotonia. The Baumans allowed their photographer, Julia Robinson, to visit the emergency room with them when  Kade had a seizure.

“It was cool of Julia to come to the ER with us,” Josh Bauman said. “Trips to the hospital with Kade are intense. She didn’t back down, she went right with it. ...We thought it was going to get difficult when we went to the ER because hospitals are picky — we thought it may get hairy, but they didn’t mind. ...We wouldn’t have agreed to do it if there was going to be something off limits.”

I’ve been photographed by classmates as a class exercise, but I wonder every time I send a Missourian photographer out on assignment if I would say yes to a photographer in a similar situation. If it was my nine-year-old brother in the hospital, would it be OK with me?

What it comes down to for me is this: The power of these stories is extraordinary. They have the power to inform, to enlighten, to show and examine the nature of human emotion. One could (and I have) debate the measurable effect of these stories but I believe that revealing a common humanity is the highest cause that could exist. Photo stories are unique in their ability to do this.

If my story had the capacity to exhibit something so true, how could I possibly say no?

What would you say?

Erin K. O'Neill is an assistant director of photography for the Missourian and a master's degree candidate at the Missouri School of Journalism. She volunteered twice for the Missouri Photo Workshop, and she is weeks away from completing her master’s project about the people who were photographed during the 2009 MPW in Festus and Crystal City.

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