Event photography is a freelancer’s best friend. Fancy dinners, birthday parties and corporate socials are relatively commonplace, clients often rebook for future occasions, and most importantly, there are expected conventions - a playbook that can be easily followed by guests and photographers alike. Photographer mills around, pokes their camera about to get some candids, guests grimace once they realise a camera is pointed at them, but smile and gather together nonetheless; guests eat and talk and listen to dinner speeches; photographer gets some shots of the speech and reaction and inevitable bad jokes; photographer hovers around afterwards to get some smiley, slightly tipsy group shots.
A line traverses every evening like this - the line between candid and posed. It is one of the most interesting and difficult to tread. I myself have sat through far too many ‘smile and pretend to be happy’ Christmas family photos - I have smiled until my cheeks are hurting, eyes are watering and patience is well and truly worn. I feel like a traitor to inflict the same to others now, and so I try my best to rip the plaster off as quickly as possible. But no matter how quick the plaster rips, it still hurts. I still see it - that wearing down of courtesy and patience. That increasing frustration at the one super-keen member of the group who wants to have the photo retaken seven or eight times. The spots of blindness from the crash and the pain in your jaw from gritted teeth. The faces people put on, the masks people don for photos (and by proxy, the world beyond who will see these photos) are exhausting. And I can see the increasing tiredness happen in front of my eyes.
On the reverse, almost everyone wants candid photos. At least in theory. Because when a genuine candid is taken of us, we are usually unhappy with the faces we’ve pulled. We smile too wide, eat too ugly, listen too bored. I have never been to an event when I haven’t been asked to delete a photo - one woman in particular actually grabbed my camera off me in an attempt to do so. A game I used to play was to guess how quickly tags are removed from candid photos on social media uploads.
Incidentally, ‘posed candid’ is a new genre that Instagram has popularised. ‘Oh is that a camera? Oh goodness me, I couldn’t possibly have a photo taken now, what with my arm at exactly 45 degrees, my good side showing, my make-up/hair recently touched up/re-gelled, this carefully chosen lighting, a wistful look off into the middle distance, my bum pushed out/abs flexed... I couldn’t possibly have a photo taken now, I’m just so candid.’ In theory, you are getting the best of both worlds: you can put on a face that you like, a gesture and expression that is ‘attractive’, yet still give off the vibe of authenticity and sincerity.
Needless to say, it doesn’t work. We all know these photos are as painfully staged as when my nan shouts at the grandkids to stand by the Christmas tree and look happy. ‘Posed candid’ also doesn’t tend to work during event photography - it’s likely that your new corporate contact or friend will see through all of this, and won’t be best pleased if you stop a discussion of stock markets or marketing ideation or some hot goss to spend a few seconds adjusting your hair, pouting and looking off into the middle-distance for the camera you’ve just spotted. On the flip side, I make it a habit to deliberately snap after the moment people realise the camera is there, but before they have a chance to adjust. People call me voyeuristic, these sorts of photos don’t help my case:
And so that cycle continues: get unhappy at candid, get tired of posed. We hate when we aren’t given the chance to put on our mask, but get exhausted and frustrated when we’re forced to wear it for too long.
The irony is, that social events are a world of masks. That goes not just for photos, but for virtually every interaction. Schmoozing with a contact at a fancy business dinner? Mask: ‘I really care about growth-hacking the core youth market, it’s practically my favourite thing to think about’. A joke has been aimed at you during your society president’s after-dinner speech? Mask: ‘oh I think that is so funny, I, as the society secretary truly deserve this, and the president has definitely done all the committee work on her own this year’. Being introduced to a boring friend of a friend at a birthday party? Mask: ‘oh hi, I’ve heard so much about you and your super interesting coin collection, tell me more about it’. I would say 95% of the people I photograph at these events are absolutely lovely people - but I would say 99% of people wear a mask of some sort.
And that goes for me, too. The photographer wears arguably the thickest mask of all, and unlike the guests, I don’t get to be candid. Over-eager drunk party guests? Uncomfortable, camera-shy introverts? Utterly confused elderly family members? My mask: smile, laugh, make small talk, and take the snap.