January 12, 2015
by Maryam Hassan

What’s wrong with the photo above? Let’s start with the obvious: the photographer is standing right in the middle of the stage at the back, dressed entirely in black against a white banner. You couldn’t ignore her even if you wanted to. If you ever wanted visual evidence of a photographers crossing a line at shows from being people documenting an event to people getting in the way of the event, this is it. 

I’ve heard the line time and time again, “There’s more photographers down at the front than actual fans,” accompanied by an eye roll and a sigh. We live in an age where it’s very easy to buy an entry level dSLR and claim to be a photographer of bands, I mean, who wouldn’t want to do that? In theory it’s brilliant, you go to shows for free, you take photos of bands and everyone thinks you’re cool… right? Well honestly, as a photographer, I can say no, not really. Photography for the masses just means that photographers have become universally disliked at shows. I’m not being down on people going out and creatively expressing themselves; photography for the masses spurs on those of us who do it professionally or semi-professionally to try and stand out among everyone else. I also try not to be down on it because at the end of the day we all just started out as that kid at the front of a show with their first dSLR and a kit lens trying to get a jump shot.

People with cameras isn’t the problem. The issue here is how we conduct ourselves as photographers at shows because believe it or not, we’re not the important ones in this situation.

I was listening to the Punknews podcast a couple of years ago and they were discussing a situation in which Glenn Danzig had banned photographers from a show. One of the guys on the roundtable discussion said something that always stuck with me: “When you’re a photographer/videographer at a show you’re not part of the gig, your job is to get the shots you need but to be as out of the way as possible.” A great live music photographer should be able to blend in so you’d hardly know they were there and I agree with that so much. At no point is that gig ever about getting the perfect shot. It’s about that band who’ve come to play a show and every single fan of that band in the venue who’ve come to have a brilliant time. I’ve seen photographers elbow audience members in the face, push people from the front and have been in situations where instead of the crowd getting involved, you’re met with external flashguns in your face and 15 photographers at the front of the stage for the whole set in a small venue with no photo pit.

The three song rule is there for a reason and should be used even in shows where there’s no photo pit because it keeps things fair. I’ve had discussions with fellow photographers who have the mindset of, “I have a job to do and I don’t care about the crowd, I need to get my work done” and I respect that. Some of us, and I’m not gonna lie here it’s not a lot, have actual paying clients we need to get photos to, and whilst that’s not ultimately giving someone the right to be better than anyone else there, someone shooting for a client/band/label/PR has a little more authority to do things like climb on the stage. Most of the time, though, there’s no need to be at the front for the whole set, so step back, put the camera down for a little while, have a drink of your choice and enjoy the music in front of you. Watching a few songs of the band can actually help a photographer figure out the best way to take photos of them without getting in the way.

I am a photographer, so technically I’m part of the problem, though I try my hardest to do what I need to do and not be annoying. Yes, I think some photographers could be more considerate, but what fans should remember is that usually the photographers who are good at what they do are the ones whose photos you go find on Tumblr or Facebook a few days later to relive the awesome show. They are the ones who caught you crowd surfing, or that moment where the singer gave you the microphone, or when the guitarist spat beer all over you, because they’ve been moving around different spots for the whole show and know how to photograph bands without being in the way. At the end of the day a lot of us are there taking photos because we’re fans first. I am certainly guilty of singing and dancing whilst I take photos at shows (I multitask well!). The reason I take photos of bands is because there’s something amazingly satisfying about getting that perfect shot that sums up why I love a band. I can’t explain to you why I love an album, but I can sure as hell show you a photo that sums up my feelings on why I love live music. I’m fortunate in the fact that for music photography I work in an area where most of my clients are bands I like, or people wanting pictures from shows I wanted to go to anyway. But there is still something awesome about going to a show of unknown bands because of the challenge: you have to observe them on stage, see what they do and decide how to approach shooting them and that challenge is how we grow as artists.

Live music photography is a really challenging and unpredictable field. Photographers can’t plan for anything because we don’t know what the lighting will be like, we don’t know how the band will be that day and we don’t know what the crowd will be like. There are so many factors we have to work with and keep an eye on whilst trying to compose shots and taking something creative and unique in that sort of situation can be hard. We’re at the mercy of our environment, which can be brilliant at times but also just a disaster too.

What I love most is taking photos whilst everyone is waiting for the band to come onstage and the people around you at the front are nice. I once shot Gorilla Biscuits at Groezrock on the Etnies stage and for people who haven’t been to Groezrock, imagine a festival stage with no photo pit, a low stage and mayhem. The security weren’t letting me shoot onstage due to a communication issue and had literally pushed me into a group of dudes at the front. The group of dudes were pushing me back on stage because they knew I would probably get very hurt or die in the pit for Gorilla Biscuits. In the end we all made a deal where I could shoot, they would all stand around me and try and keep people from landing on me, and when I couldn’t take anymore I’d put up my hand and one of them would pull me out of the pit. I literally lasted 20 seconds before my hand was up and this guy pulled me to the back of the tent. I’m not afraid of being at the front at all, but in an intense sort of situation like that where I’m 5’2” and these massive dudes are flying at my head I was a little out of my depth. Working with the crowd did me so many favours and that’s what punk is about, right? Helping each other out, being considerate for those around us and having the best goddamn time at shows.

Photographers aren’t a bad bunch; most of us are just trying to do a job. I wouldn’t expect everyone to do what I do, but I think if you respect those around you, talk to people between bands whilst at the front waiting to take photos and just keep an eye on what’s going on when shooting, everything goes smoothly. Like most things in our world the photographer/crowd dynamic is something that is so harmonious with a little communication and respect from both parties. Take your photos for sure, just don’t hold back anyone else’s fun to do so.