Near the end of winter I was approached by the Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank. Their request was simple – help them document the people and neighborhoods that rely on the foodbank’s assistance for food. I couldn’t say yes fast enough.
I’ll be honest, a photo essay project like this is a photographer’s dream. We all want to capture real people living in real moments. It’s why street photography is so popular. It’s why photo-journalists will risk their lives in war torn countries. There’s a deep need for us to expose the emotions of people, and those emotions are best found where they are near the surface. Sadly, that often means areas of homelessness, the victims of war, disease, and people struggling with poverty in general.
I thought I knew what I was getting into. When describing my photographic approach to the Foodbank I insisted that I wanted to take the pictures that were given to me. At the time that meant to me I would be taking a lot of photos of people with faces labored with burden, bodies that bared the weight of the world. My first day on the job took those expectations, tore them up and threw the pieces into the wind.
Where I expected to find sadness, I found strength, optimism. I thought I would find shame, but instead I encountered honor. It wasn’t the dark emotional alley I expected it to be. Instead it was cohesive community working together to make everyone’s lives better.
Let’s talk about the Foodbank for a moment. The Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank (ACRFB) serves 8 counties in Ohio. They distribute over 24 million pounds of food each year, with 65% of that food given to their member agencies at zero cost. If those numbers sound impressive, they are. The ACRFB was named Food Bank of the Year, which is the highest recognition achievable among the Feeding America national network. The people who work for the Foodbank are the typification of first-class. They tackle the problem of hunger tirelessly and employ innovation for improved fundraising, problem solving and program services.
You can see their efforts at work the moment you walk into any of their sponsored agencies. Time and time again, I was told, “No one leaves hungry. No one is turned away.” Walking around one of the Foodbank’s agencies it doesn’t take long to see that those words are an iron-clad promise. The first location we shoot at was an old church. On Sundays the halls are filled with parishioners, but on that day it was filled with volunteers and the people they serve.
The volunteers were also not what I had expected. I figured that the average volunteer force at a food shelter would be made up mostly of younger, college aged kids. Instead I found many of the volunteers had once, or still were, the same people receiving assistance from the shelters. They felt so strongly about the work the Foodbank and shelters had done for them that they wanted to give back and be part of the solution. Our first subject was one of those people; a lady who had received assistance for years who now served the folks she once stood in line with.
Our next location, a shelter out in the middle of Amish country, was the same. As was the one after that, and after that. Each shelter greeted me with smiling faces – not the sadness I was prepared for. And in those moments are where I became swept up in just how amazing these people were. Mothers with small children, fathers, families, even the wonderful lady who was fighting MS while relying on the Foodbank, turned out to be nothing short of the some of the strongest people I’ve ever met.
Hunger and the people who suffer from it belong to no stereotype. They are individuals with unique reasons for needing assistance. Many of the people we talked to and took photos of worked at least one job. Some of them worked two.
All of them shared one commonality, and that was the gratefulness they shared towards the Foodbank and its shelters. One such person was a man named Mark. He has relied on food assistance from a shelter aided by the Foodbank. Now he spends free time at the shelter, manning a wagon he uses to ferry groceries to the cars of other shelter clients. He was kind enough to take a few moments out of his day to let me photograph him, but the whole time I was clicking the shutter I could see he just wanted to get back to work, to the people he cared for.
Once all was said and done, I had visited shelters in the middle of country fields, in the woods, and in the middle of urban America. I had taken my camera, ready to take pictures of people overcome by circumstance and instead I found smiles and pride as far as my lens could see. This job destroyed any misconceptions I ever had about hunger and the people living with it, and this will stay with me forever as one of the best jobs I’ve ever had the honor to work on.
Special thanks to Kat Pestian, Michael Wilson, and Melissa Link. You can follow the wonderful work of the Akron Canton Regional Foodbank here.
Benjamin Lehman is a Commercial Portrait, Advertising, and Wedding Photographer in Canton, Ohio area.
In addition to working as a writer, his work appearing in commercial campaigns and local news papers, Brian Lisik also enjoys his time on stage as a prolific musician. Brian’s music is heartfelt and melodic, appealing to many types of audiences while dodging categorization.
When we talked about working on a photo campaign for an upcoming project we both knew the photos had to be just as unique. Brian lived near a location, an old auto repair shop, that was just dripping with visual personality. When he recommended that we might want to shoot there, we raced over to scout it out. It didn’t take long to realize that this was a gold mine for photographs. It was so great, in fact, that it served as a backdrop for another local artist’s photos I had taken.
With permission from the owner of the repair shop, we arrived on a Saturday around 6pm, ready to take pictures. Because it was the end of spring when we took these pictures, that meant that the sun was still high in the sky, even around 6pm. After snapping a few frames and reviewing our work we realized the location needed a little more drama from the lights to help bring the location to life.
I was shooting Brian with a large 5 foot octa acting as his key light. We decided to try to keep things simple and add a second light. I really wanted to add some color to the light as well and our final decision was put a full cut of CTO onto an unmodified speed light. Unmodified meant the light would be small and harsh, and the CTO gel would give it a warm glow.
We got everything in place, reset ourselves and started snapping a few frames. Instantly we knew we had nailed it. The single, extra light with it’s orange gel was giving the photos the unmistakable sense of sunset, and that little detail made the difference. We would spend the next 2 hours on location taking pictures against many backdrops; cars, an old wall made up of tire rims, and an old office door.
Normally as the sun gets lower in the sky, photographers will push their subject into it, using it as a beautiful backlight. Because we were getting such great results out of our own little artificial sun we made the choice to avoid the actual sun and continue to use our flash as both main, and artificial sun/kicker. Because the speed light was so easy to move around it gave us a lot more flexibility to set the scene however we wanted it and I think the photos speak for themselves as to it’s effectiveness.
Due of the nature of the project, I can’t share our favorite photos until they are released with the project itself, but keep an eye on the site and I’ll start posting photos as the roll-out begins.
Benjamin Lehman is a Commercial Portrait, Advertising and Wedding Photographer based in Canton, Ohio.
Earlier this week I added a new piece of gear to my already hefty camera bag – the Aputre Trigmaster Plus II 2.4G. Up until now, I haven’t had a lot of uses for good, reliable wireless triggers. For my studio lights I’d usually lay out a long sync cord attached to a separate power adjuster. When I used my speedlites I had to rely on some very cheap, and actually very unreliable, wireless triggers. But recently, I’ve been working on shoots that are larger in physical scale, and that increased distance meant it was time to find a trigger that would be reliable at greater range.
If you search the photography forums you’ll see that most photogs will recommend the PocketWizard brand time and time again – and for good reason, I should add. They didn’t earn that loyalty through shoddy quality. But PocketWizards can be a bit on the (very) expensive side and as the number of lights in your photographic arsenal grows so will your need for triggers. This is why I decided to give the Aputure brand of triggers a go. The reviews for these things so far have been pretty stellar and even though I’ve only had the chance to use them on one shoot so far I certainly got the feeling that these are every ounce as professional as their more pricey counterparts.
Like the PocketWizards they do cool things such as channel selection so you can run your triggers near other photogs without interference. You can also set triggers to zones, so you can fire only specific strobes individually or all at once (useful at things like weddings where you may have several flashes set up in an area and only want to target specific sections of a room). The advertised range is fantastic as well – up to 500m, although I haven’t truly tested it any anywhere near that limit. They feel sturdy and hefty too, and in no way cheap. The only downside I have found so far is the styling. While PocketWizards tend to look like next generation stealth aircraft, the Trigmaster Plus II looks like it comes from a pre-Chernobyl era.
Oh, and then there’s the price. These things are less than half the price of their rivals. For that you’re getting nearly all same features and build quality for half the cost. Feel free to compare the prices on Amazon when you get the chance.
Shooting Portraits on Location at A-1 Auto Repair.
Every now and then you get an amazing lead on a good location to photograph portraits. More often than not that location is something like a beautiful historic mansion, or a wonderful farm landscape or any other number of amazing, but slightly cliché backdrops. However, sometimes that location is something completely different than pretty much anything else out there.
Such was the case when a friend of mine suggested A-1 Auto Repair in Canton, Ohio. When another friend of mine, Chase the Matrix, needed some photos for his promo material I knew this new location would be perfect. Set against the farmed hills west of Canton proper, A-1 Auto Repair is an old-fashioned type of a place. A land that time forgot, but refuses to let go of. When you first pull up you’ll notice a long wall made entirely of old rims and hubcaps, and trust me when I say that would be enough to make this place cool. But it gets better. In front of the fence are several vintage, rusty cars. Again, perfect backdrop for portraits that need to be a little different in look and style.
Behind the fence is an entire, over grown junkyard. Old rusted cars with trees growing through them. Old rusted appliances, old rusted oil cans – old rusted everything! Everywhere you turn your lens there’s an amazing landscape of rusted Americana. Okay, okay, I know rusted cars can be a cliché photo backdrop as well, but not if the location is more than just that, and A-1 Auto is filled with portrait photography possibilities in all 360 degrees.
Now, I should mention, I’ve never shot here before nor had I ever even seen this place with my own eyes until the day we rolled up there for the shoot. That’s pretty risky, especially when you don’t know how the owners will react to you strolling up with a camera and some lights, asking if you can be on their property for an hour. Luckily, the owner and employees were as nice as you could ask for in people. They graciously let us have the run of the place and we did our best to make sure we just didn’t get in the way of their business.
Over all it turned out to be a great place for a portrait session that needed a little extra edge to it. It could even be a great place for some adventurous wedding photography too with the right bride and groom.
I love doing product and advertising shots – especially when the product is something we actually use! Such is the case here with Macadamia.
This is a composite shot taken in our studio. The items (wonderful hair care products by Macadamia) were set up on a sheet of black acrylic so we could capture sharp and saturated reflections. The smokey clouds in the background are actually drops of milk dripped into a fish tank (a la Close Encounters of the Third Kind). We then composited the milk & products, and tweaked the color of the milk in Photoshop.