Don't Think About Elephants

During this shoot, I was reminded of a scene in "Inception."

Arthur says to Saito: "Ok, this is me planting an idea in your mind. I say: Don't think about elephants. What are you thinking about? 

Saito: Elephants. 


Giving direction to a subject can be just about the mechanics, telling them which way to turn their head, where to stand, whether to smile, or not. But if you can direct your subjects emotional state, you can get some real, genuine expressions that you couldn't otherwise get. I got the idea in the NLP reading I did recently and tried to put it to use (NLP: Neuro Linguistic Programming, is probably equal parts genius and hokum).

It was an awkward start to the shoot. Always is. I needed a little time to settle down. And I needed to remember how to do this. Once we got comfortable (and once the technical part was figured out), we were ready to get to the real work of making photographs, but I still needed to give some direction. 

The trick is to direct your subject to a memory that's connected with the emotional state you want them to express. It's simple enough. Want your subject to smile? Ask them to recall their happiest memory. Ask them to describe it to you, in detail. Where did it happen? Who was there? Phrase your questions to engage their senses, ask them about what they saw and heard. The details are important, they can be emotional triggers.

But don't interrogate your subject either. Use questions to direct them towards the memory, but allow them to fill in the details.

I'm certainly no expert on NLP. I haven't even finished the book yet! But I found some use for it during this shoot. 

I didn't ask my model for her happiest memory. I asked her for an intimate one. The results are the images you see here:

(A side note: as it happens, this friend has a a strange obsession with elephants. You'll find them on her jewelry, her clothes, her bags, even framed pictures on her walls. This made the title for this blogpost seem more appropriate.)


Our first and second sessions were so productive, there was no question about a third. 

This time, we shot in a studio, raising the roll-up door to make one whole side of the studio our light source. 

I like watching people at work, especially if it’s creative work. I like the intense focus, the confident, almost effortless movements, and the small details in the work. 

Here’s a few of my favorites: