Photography in the session

One night at a festival – well, one very early morning at a festival – a bunch of us were sitting around under the big marquee having a singing session. We’d been sessioning for hours, following a day of performing, MCing and generally running around. It was cold enough to freeze the gonads from a metal-alloy primate, and we were each dressed in a tipsy assortment of multi-coloured clothing – basically, everything we’d brought for a weekend of camping. We looked and sounded thoroughly ragged, is what I’m saying. And we were having a ball.

I became aware that a lady we didn’t know was circling the group, filming us on her phone. These were the days before Facebook had become ubiquitous and before Snapchat and Instagram were even invented. Smart phones were a sufficiently fresh innovation that the ease with which we were being semi-covertly video-recorded was new and somewhat disturbing.

I approached the lady and queried her about her intentions. Yes indeed, she was recording the session in order to post it online. The thought clearly hadn’t crossed her mind that doing so without asking or even telling the musicians might be a tad disrespectful. Fortunately this particular lady was a reasonable person, who agreed not to post the video when I asked her. But I would have been stuck if she’d countered, ‘It’s a public performance, isn’t it?’

Okay, it was a festival – open to the public, held at a campground which operates as a business by accepting the paying public as customers. Anyone who’d bought a ticket was entitled to experience whatever was going on in spaces around the festival, particularly under the marquee. And if she’d been filming onstage performances, I doubt anyone would have objected to her posting photos and videos wherever she liked. That’s part of the contract performers make with their audiences – unless photography is forbidden and there are signs saying so, it’s up to performers to look and sound so good that they don’t mind who sees and hears them. In fact, bands adore being Shared and Liked.

But this was a session. Everyone in the circle had known everyone else for years, in rainbow states of inebriation, ill-health, bad mood, wardrobe malfunction and unfortunate partner choice.  Most were professional, or at least respected, musicians, and while we didn’t mind making musical and sartorial fools of ourselves in front of one another at three in the morning, this wasn’t a moment we’d intended to share with the world. Facebook has no compunction about naming and shaming – it will tag you, and suddenly the audience you’re trying to impress as a gun tenor banjo player will instead know you as a runny-nosed guy, wobbling on a camp stool, wearing odd socks as mittens in an effort to keep your fingers from freezing to the strings. Your friends love that guy, but it’s not the best look for social media.

The sad fact is that visual recording technologies dislike sessioners, and still photography hates us with even more passion than video. No matter how beautifully you sing, the shot that catches you mid-note always makes you look half-witted: mouth half-open, eyes half-closed. The box-player may be in seventh heaven, playing a reel at the speed of light, but the camera inevitably makes him look like he’s facing the gallows – or at best plotting genocide. I once took a picture of a fiddler that I thought captured a gorgeous musician in a moment of deep concentration, but the owner of the face and fiddle protested that the picture was ‘not kind’. Sessions often take place in poorly-lit venues, with people scattered all over the depth of field, and to make matters worse their hands and faces are in constant motion. So unless you’re a spectacularly good photographer you end up with lots of grainy images in which the guitarist or bodhran-player may be in focus (except for one hand which is blurred into a bunch of bananas) but everyone else is fuzz.

Editor’s Note: Since I am not a spectacularly good photographer, I have a couple of SD cards full of such images, and am running out of half-decent photos to accompany blog posts. Please help if you can.

Photography in the session can be very distracting, especially if you use a flash. Be sensitive to shy singers and people trying out new songs – it’s just possible a camera in their face will put them off. (This is probably a good moment to apologise for such behaviour and express my deep gratitude to the Brisbane Saturday Session crew, and assorted other sessions lately, for humouring me while I run around trying to collect illustrative shots of uilleann pipes and what a session looks like when everyone’s gone to the bar.)

When possible, ask people’s permission (at least non-verbally) before photographing them. It’s good form to refrain from posting images that are unflattering, or might reflect badly on the person. There’s a notorious image out there of an excited folkie lunging for his instrument, that looks exactly like he’s about to punch his best mate in the face. And many of us have tried explaining to a spouse that the drunken punter in that picture is someone we’re trying to fend off.

For all kinds of moral, ethical and legal reasons, and for your own safety, please don’t photograph children under 15 without the express consent of both them and their guardians. My kids are adults now, and spend half their lives sharing photos and videos of themselves, but anyone who posted pictures of them on social media without my permission when they were children no longer dwells in the land of the living. Just saying.

Does anyone have any tips, advice or stories about photography and video in sessions? Love to hear from you in the Comments. And the door is open for guest blog posts – waltz right in, the party’s just getting started.



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