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
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.