I didn’t say this explicitly in my intro to the project, but this was only partly a project about photography. Photography was the vehicle that I could use to gain trust and access to places that aren’t normally open to the public. Or, at least not normally observed by the public. As such, it was a challenge for my interpersonal skills, and overcoming my own fears. Whether or not I made incredible images was really secondary. Of course, I wanted to make good images, but getting the access and permission to attempt the images really was the primary goal. If great images were really the goal, I would have had to have spent a lot more time on each location, developing a better understanding of the ebb-and-flow of the events and how those could contribute to great images.
What was it like to gain the access that I did?
- As I was nosing around the water facility, the manager saw me and asked nicely what I was doing. When I explained the project, and asked if he would give me a tour, he opened up completely. He spent a good bit of time describing the whole operations, and then suggested I visit the sewage plant.
- After discussing my project with the sewage plant manager (I think) and explaining that I’d met Scott in the water facility, the sewage plant manager seemed to be very concerned that I had (openly, admittedly) also visited the water plant. Then he told me all about the “soft target” status for water and sewage treatment from Homeland Security. He then asked if I was going to post anything on the internet. When I explained that I would like to, he almost shut me down and just about refused to show me anything. But within seconds (I’m not sure what I said or did) he seemed to change his mind, gave me a complete tour, a lesson in chemistry, and an intro course in civil engineering. And told me I couldn’t take a picture just once. Oh, and he also told me how for less than $10 I could (were I so inclined) shut down all of Chautauqua for a season, making a total media nightmare for the Institution. Fortunately he learned through his in-depth interrogation that I wasn’t that kind of person.
- Getting into the top of Miller Bell Tower required just a bit more work. After two visits, I asked Carolyn, the bell-master, who could give me permission to go to the top. I could tell from the dust and dirt on the roped-off stairs that very few people went up. She told me I’d have to talk to Marty, the program director. I went to Marty’s office, introduced myself, and explained my project. The first words out of his mouth were “We normally always say ‘no’ to this kind of request.” He spoke about liabilities and insurance, and the fact that the belfry was completely unprotected. But all the while, he seemed to be open to the possibility, so I offered assurances of being careful, and even being willing to sign a liability waiver. He declined having me do that, but laid out the very reasonable conditions under which I could go up. He told me he would be informing Carolyn of his decision, then asked me wryly, “you aren’t going to shoot anyone from up there, are you?”
- On my first visit to the Athenaeum, I asked to meet with the “kitchen manager”–shows how much I didn’t know, since I didn’t even ask for the chef. It was about 3PM, and I figured they would be busy (ideal for my images). However, the chef was too busy to even come talk to me; I was told to come back another time. For a day or two, I let this get to me. I understood that they would be busy, and had no reason to doubt that as the reason, but I was also worried that it was a subtle way of saying “you aren’t important enough”. But after gaining access to the Bell Tower, my confidence was high, so I decided to give it another shot. This time, I asked to speak with the chef around 1:30PM, right after the lunch rush. I figured this was as good a time as any, and if that wouldn’t work, I would do a better job at asking for a better time. Ross came up to talk with me, was immediately open to the idea of me being in the kitchen, and it just happen to work out that my timing was perfect. He could afford to give me a few minutes, show me around, and let me hover around the fringes of the kitchen. The friendliness and trust and access afforded to me were phenomenal.
- Late in the week, after completing my “stretch” goals of the Athenaeum kitchen and the Bell Tower belfry, I decided to approach the police department. With my well-versed project description delivered, the officer agreed to let me ride with him Friday morning at 9AM. When I showed up at the appointed time, he was busy with a porcupine situation. The dispatcher asked for my phone number, and said the office would call me when he was available. After lunch, I went back to the station to be sure they hadn’t forgotten about me, but ready to be turned away if he was too busy for me. Fortunately my timing was just right–he had to finish some paperwork for about three minutes, then we hopped into his police SUV. While we were touring the grounds, talking about off-season burglaries and what Chautauqua police life was like, he got a call to run to the bank with the treasurers office. The fact that he let me stay in his vehicle while we went to the bank spoke a great deal about the trust he had developed in my in our short time, and it was great to ride along, and take a few pictures.
- Getting into the band tour bus was pretty easy. The bus driver had seen me making the image below, and after chatting with him for a minute or two about life on the road, I asked if I could step onto the bus to take a few pictures. He obliged and was even ready to start the bus so as to turn on the air conditioning for me. I insisted that wasn’t necessary, made a few images, thanked him for his time, and got out of his way
- .Most of the access at The Amp was easy–just walk in and take some pictures. I had contemplated trying to get access to the spot light room way above the seating, but decided against even trying. In fact, the only “no” I got the whole week was from the stage manager at The Amp. We had been watching the Wild Kingdom show, and had been down front talking with the falconer and watching people get pictures with Steven Gros, and I wondered what I might see of their work with the animals back stage. The stage manager was standing by one of the passageways to back stage, and I (holding my camera obviously) asked the manager if I could go back stage. No, because they didn’t want pictures showing the animals in their cages. Fair enough.
Chautauqua really was a great place for this kind of project. And I found that having a “personal photography project” that I could use as a vehicle as part of a discussion really helped to open the doors moreso, I think, than just saying “I’m curious. Could I take a picture?” The sum total is essentially the same, but the fact that I had put some thought into it ahead of time seemed to put people at ease.