“Slowly Getting There” A Photo Essay

15 months after limitations caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, life is beginning to feel closer to normal. Massachusetts vaccinations are increasing, positive COVID-19 infections are decreasing, and all restrictions have been lifted. It’s starting to feel like summer again.

While COVID-19 impacted many industries, a lesser reported industry suffered the brunt of preventative restrictions; barbershops and salons. Early in the pandemic, barbershops across New England shuttered their doors. Barbers endured furloughs, loss of revenue, and unemployment benefits. Barbershops opened in the early summer of 2020, but with heavy restrictions and reduced population. Barbershop owners had to retrofit their spaces to adhere to current CDC guidelines and limit how many people they engaged with.

Many men gave up haircuts completely during the pandemic, and there are many more long-haired men than before March 2020.

With the restrictions lifting completely, barbershops are now opening their doors and welcoming the masses. However, people are still reluctant to get their haircut, and barbershops are still struggling. I visited Flawless Cutz, a barbershop in Fall River, Massachusetts, to see how barbers were doing and how the effects of the pandemic have lingered.

“It’s slowly getting there,” Mark Silva, owner of Flawless Cutz, says. “We’ve seen increased numbers, but it’s not where we once were.” Nick Motta, the barber, tells me barbering has been difficult but welcomes the steady stream of customers.

During my one-hour visit, it felt like COVID-19 was a thing of the past. Nick serviced two customers. Mark also had two customers, and two other barbers had a stream of customers. It was a busy place, and it seems like people are becoming more comfortable with visiting barbershops.

Slowly Getting There

Flawless Cuts Barbers Mark Silvera and Nick Motta welcome the reduction of Massachusett’s COVID-19 restrictions. The prior COVID-19restrictions limited the scope of barbers and impacted the financial wellbeing of the barber industry.
While COVID-19 had many impacts, many barbers left the profession altogether. Nick Motta, a 26-year-old barber, is seen in the reflection of an empty barber chair. This is his third year of barbering. He completed his barbering license in the summer of 2019 and was immediately impacted by the restrictions in 2020.
After three months of being closed, on May 25, 2020, Massachusetts opened up Barbershops with strict limitations. Barbershops could function on an appointment-only basis, at 25% capacity, and masks needed to be worn at all times. Barbershops also had to conduct contract tracing, install plastic dividers and were restricted from beard and mustache work.
For Nick Motta, the shutdown was challenging. His income became nonexistent, and his livelihood was threatened. He resorted to reluctantly collecting unemployment benefits and desperately waited for restrictions to be lifted. He shares a story of how some barbers operated underground, cutting people’s hair in basements and garages, but didn’t choose that path as he didn’t wait to jeopardize his new license.
On May 29, 2021, Governor Charlie Baker lifted all restrictions for barbershops and salons. Since the announcement, the business has returned to almost normal levels. Flawless Cutz Mark Silvera and Nick Motta exchange fun stories as a young Fall River teen waits his turn for a haircut.
Mark Silvera opened Flawless Cutz on Plymouth Ave. in Fall River, Massachusetts, in 2008. Since reopening, he’s opened a second location in Somerset, Massachusetts. He employs close to 20 barbers.
In the 40 minutes that Nick spends on his clients, he playfully talks about sports, cars, and work. For example, his client asks him to be referred to as “Andy Dalton,” quarterback for the Chicago Bears, due to his uncanny resemblance.
A photo of Nick Motta’s daughter looms over Nick as he takes a break to reorganize the profits of the day’s work.
Despite the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions, Flawless Cutz still demands perfection from its barbers. A sign constantly reminds barbers that clients need to leave the barbershop flawless.
Nick Motta became Mark Silvera’s apprentice early in 2019. Mark mentored Nick to become a licensed barber and rented a chair to him immediately afterward. For Nick, barbering has become a dream job.

Photo Essays, an amazing tool

Photo Essays have been around since the inception of the camera and are not going away anytime soon. Researchers have studied how effective stories can be when paired with powerful photography. The photo essay is a strong platform to communicate a visual story. The New York Times, for example, spends a great deal of effort empowering their photographers to produce beautiful and thought-provoking photo essays.

Locally, in New Bedford, photojournalist Peter Pereira developed excellent photo essays of COVID-19, Cranberry Harvesting, and Heroin Usage. Pete’s photography inspires me daily to become a better visual storyteller.

Photojournalistic Methods

I’ve been practicing photojournalism since the fall of 2006, where I started shooting television news at WJAR-TV in Providence, Rhode Island. My phtogoraphy style embraces the pure nature of photojournalism. Little editing, no staging, and capturing moments organically. My method can break down into four tenets.

  1. Be a fly on the wall. Photojournalists across the globe attempt to become invisible. This allows organic moments to happen without prompting from the photographer. I have never felt comfortable staging images and always wanted my imagery to be captured as genuinely as possible. I don’t even bring external flashes to shoots, as they add something artificial to the story.
  2. Find the image that tells the story. I remember my mentor Greg Monte, chief photographer of WPRI News, tell me, “You have to seek the one image that tells the whole story.” Since then, I always approach photography with this in mind. I’m constantly seeking the image that evokes emotion from an audience.
  3. Position yourself in the story. I am not one of those photojournalists that rely on a long zoom lens, shooting from great distances. Instead, I’m a fixed lens photographer, meaning I only use the lens that does not zoom. So, inherently, I need to position myself rather close to the subjects I’m capturing. This gives a sense of realism because my images come directly from the action instead of a distance away.
  4. Accept the Flaws. However, shooting in this manner also means that sometimes my images will be softer or have focusing issues when shooting with extremely shallow depth of fields. I tend to accept those flaws, as I feel like it adds to the genuine nature of my images. On the other hand, if the technical images were too perfectly constructed, I feel like people would assume I staged the images altogether.

Behind the Scenes

This shoot was certainly fun and insightful. The theme for this photo essay was to examine the effects of the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions and seeing an industry rebound from near catastrophe. I limited myself to one hour and shot this essay on Friday evening. Armed with a Canon 5D Mark IV, a Rokinon 24MM 1.8 Cine Lens, a Canon L Series 1.4 50mm prime lens, and a Canon L series 1.4 85mm prime lens, my images were ready be taken.

When I first arrive on a shoot, I don’t shoot much. Instead, I take a mental inventory of what’s going on, who my subjects are, what the lighting conditions are, and try to build a human connection first. Once people are comfortable, I will begin taking images. I’ve never been one of those photographers who shoot thousands of images in a small amount of time. Instead, I seek to capture quality vs. quantity. My practice strives to be thoughtful and with intention.

Often, I find myself posting up, composing an image, and waiting for the action to fall into the frame. I sometimes feel like a hunter, setting traps for my subjects to fall into. I’m also a fan of shooting in high burst frame rates to capture the exact frame that best tells that story, and I frequently change the lens to give me different perspectives.

Photo Essay Strategy

For every shoot I go into, I always create some challenges to spice up my experience. For example, when I worked in Television news, I could challenge myself to record someone wearing a funny hat or challenge myself to capture an unexpected image. For this shoot, I challenged myself to follow photojournalism tips inspired by Reuter’s Photojournalist Damir Sagolj.

Anticipate

Anticipation is crucial for photojournalistic practices. Often photographers need to envision the action a person will take, and then position themselves in the best position to capture that moment. Many times photographers will take test shots, hoping their exposure, focus, and color balance is ready for that perfect moment.

In this shoot, I wanted to demonstrate my ability to anticipate. While working on clients, I observed Nick and Mark spinnning their client chairs, and I had hoped that eventually they would create a perfect symmetrical image.

In the shot above, this shot was a test shot to test the camera settings until the moment happened.
For a brief moment, Nick and Mark were symmetrically lined up, and luckily created similar poses.

In the image above, I posted up against a wall, and framed my shot, and took a test shot. At the time, Mark was in the position I was hoping for, and then waited about 15 minutes for Nick to swivel his chair, creating the symmetrical photo I had envisioned. Luck was on my side, as Nick unknowingly made the same pose as Mark.

Research

So many times, I see new photographers showing up to a shoot and just being shooting. Following Damir’s lead, I would caution against this approach. For best results, I believe it’s imperative to conduct some research before arrival.

For me, my research took place many years ago. Nick Motta happens to be my cousin, and before his wedding, Mark Silvera cut my hair. It’s easy for me to say that the haircut was one of the best haircuts I’ve ever had. As I waited for my haircut, I watched Mark’s practice, intense focus, and mapped out the barbershop. So when this project came up, I instantly knew how I would shoot this thanks to the research I conducted yearas ago.

Reach Out

Damir Sagolj’s fourth photojournalism tip is probably the most important. When photographing people, it’s so important to develop relationships with people. People will be the bridge to a photographer’s success and often will need-blind trust. When this opportunity presented itself, I immediately reached out to Nick and asked Nick to speak with Mark granting permission to shoot in the barbershop. Mark gave me the green light and trusted me to work in the space.

I also reached out to the people I photographed, explained the project, and asked permission to shoot images of the barbers while they were being worked on. They all agreed.

Prioritize

You can’t shoot everything for a photo essay, and moments will be needed to be prioritized. While shooting this photo essay, I developed two priorities. One was to shoot the images of barbers working post-COVID-19 restrictions, and the second priority, capture images that focused on details. In the first 30 minutes of this shoot, I shot mostly with a 50mm lens, capturing the barber’s interaction with their clients. Once I felt like I achieved that priority, I switched to the 85mm lens and focused on capturing details. Lastly, my final priority was to capture wider images using the 24mm cine lens.

Practice

Damir Sagolj recommends knowing your camera first and what the capabilities of the camera are. I’ve been shooting with the Canon 5d Mark IV since August of this year. I’ve had a great deal of practice photographing my 11-month-old son and have a strong understanding of how the camera functions. I mostly shoot in manual settings, adjusting the shutter speed, aperture, and ISO manually. I do, however, rely on autofocus since my eyesight is not as strong as it used to be, and the camera’s autofocus capabilities are tremendous.

However, I’ve found that my camera is often too sensitive and needs some tweaking. One shot from this series really made me proud until I saw the image on a large screen. I love shooting at extreme apertures of 2.8 or higher. Most of my lenses can shoot at 1.4! If you’re unsure what I’m mentioning, 1.4 on a lens allows a ton of light into the camera and creates a beautiful soft background. On an 85mm lens, the depth of field is razor-thin.

When I framed the image above, I wanted to shoot Nick by framing the image through Mark’s Chair. While I had the shot I wanted, my autofocus shifted to Nick’s hand, and not his face, rendering the image unsuable to my standards.

The autofocus shifted to Nick’s hand, not his face. Making this photo unusable.

Symmetry

Lastly, my final personal photography challenge revolved from Gestalt’s visual principles, symmetry. Luckily, I found a perfect opportunity to capture a symmetrical image. In the back of the barbershop sits an empty barbering station. The mirror is perpendicular to Nick’s station. As soon as I saw the placement of the mirror, I knew I could capture a perfectly symmetrical shot. Only issue: In my haste and excitement, I couldn’t cut myself out of the reflection!

Editing Practices

The RAW image on the left demonstrates the different edits that occur on the edited version on the right.

Within an hour, I captured 127 images. All of the images were shot in Canon RAW and then later processed in Adobe Photoshop. While editing photos, I do not take anything out or insert anything. Some photographers wouldn’t bat an eye to removing pimples, blemishes, or facial scars. That’s not me. Instead, I need my images to be as genuine as possible.

When editing, I’m cognizant of not over-processing the images and simply tweaking exposure and saturation levels and cropping the image. On a few occasions, depending on the nature of the shoot, I’ll add a slight color grade to enhance the colors captured by the camera but never altered to remove the colors out of context completely.

Behind the scenes of my editing process. in Adobe Photoshop

Wrapping Up

This photo essay energized me for two reasons, it made me reminiscent of my news photography days, and it gave me hope that the COVID-19 pandemic is becoming a thing of the past and normalcy returns.

If you need a top-notch barber, I would highly recommend booking with Nick and Mark at Flawless Cutz, 774 Plymouth Ave. Fall River, Massachusetts.

2 Comments

  1. Hi Drew!

    I loved your introduction and the connections it made to Covid. I think this added much needed background and emotion to the story. Your words supported the photographs instead of just saying the same thing.

    Knowing your background from your introductions in class, I knew your photos were going to be great and they did not disappoint. Your use of focus made the images so interesting and unique, something my iPhone can’t do easily. One of my favorite photos is the one of the reflection, making the image symmetrical. This was a great use of Gestalt principles.

    Your images capture emotions of both the barbers and the customers. Their expressions tell us more about them than any words could. The fact that there are no masks paints this as a post-pandemic piece where we can finally see emotions on people faces again. Your captions are supportive, and don’t just gives us the same information as the picture. Your photos are authentic.

    I love how you added your tips and methods that I will definitely be using! I can tell by your process that you took the readings advice and tried to understand the story and environment before you started to shoot. Great job!

  2. Hi Drew! —

    I’m **so** glad that we had this photo essay assignment and that your photo essay was on barbershops. In my mind barber shops and salons, especially the ones that are not chains like the one you chronicle here, are so key to the fabric and pulse of our communities.

    Let’s get one thing clear though, after taking in your excellent photo essay, the chair that I sat down for this “review” exercise was not of the barbershop/client variety but, rather of the instructor/student variety!

    Within a couple of minutes of taking my metaphorical “seat” I realized how well your visuals and story meshed and that yes, class was indeed in session. With you being a paid, trained media educator and photojournalist I almost felt a little guilty that I was getting a “freebie”.

    **Where to start !! ??**

    Great, thoughtful pictures? … **Check**.

    Rather seamless, connected story? …**Check**.

    Captions that effectively help to explain individual scenes while deftly advancing the story? …**Check**.

    Could I gain a reasonable idea, a feel for the storyline **without** any text? …**Check**.

    Photographic, Design Principles, & Techniques evident? …**Check**.

    This last observation involved named and **unnamed** principles and concepts. **For example** I saw more pictures than not where the unnamed photographic principle of the **rule of thirds** seemed to definitely be at play. The unnamed Gestalt principle of **figure and ground** was also very apparent in some of your photos and this was great!

    On the other hand Drew you appropriately **name** a particularly great picture where you made great use of the Gestalt visual principle of symmetry. I easily felt, however, a certain sense of symmetry, balance, professionalism , and grace in **all** your shots **despite** the everyday nature of them.

    In terms of techniques I am inspired to eventually really try photoshop! Also **please share with me or tell me where I can learn how to do that photo “slide” technique that you use under “Editing Practices” !!**

    In sum, your description of your creative process — your photojournalistic methods, your behind the scenes information – your strategy **all add up for me to be extremely valuable tips and insights for me**. Your barbershop photo essay blog post will be a very solid reference for me …. from this day moving forward.

    Your photo essay will not only help to further inform my final research paper Drew (which is on the famous African American photographer, Gordan Parks) but your essay will also certainly help to **anchor** my personal digital archives of visual story telling and design-related topics. This as I attempt to improve both my photographic and my visual story telling skills!.

    For example, I know that stock photos can be frowned upon for valid reasons. Still I plan to try my hand at submitting or even brokering quality photos for stock photography sites. Ut-oh — I digress here — Should I be so bold to think that I, like you, I could one day add Etsy or the like to my income stream? … Anyway, I feel that your photo essay has prepared me to move a step closer to re-exploring some entrepreneurial goals!

    I also **aspire** to be able actually plan to go and shoot what I need in one full day, let alone one hour!! Geez! ….. your 15 years of photo essay and other related experience truly makes a difference! Can we keep in touch??!!

    Your photo essay energized and inspired me for several reasons Drew—only some of them are suggested herein: I have no substantive constructive comments. Just glad to take my seat, learn, and file.

    Kevin

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