Fear :: And The Winner Is… + Discussion On The Subject

February 6, 2010 | • Philosophy GOYA

The Setup ::

Last week we assembled a crew to help us on a three day shoot in an old abandoned mansion. I set one day aside for everyone on set to have time to grab some gear, grab a model, and shoot for themselves as payment for helping me on the other two days of shooting.  Knowing that competition can bring the best out in a person I decided we should have a shootout. I posted the images here on the blog and had you all vote.

Before shooting we decided to pick one word that we all had to shoot an image for. The first word that came up was “pain” but then someone said “fear” and we decided that would be a good one and off we went.  Each photographer could interpret that any way they wanted and what happened in the comments of the original blog post has been an interesting conversation of whether any of us actually shot an image that communicated fear.  I feel that some of you wanted far too literal of an interpretation. Fear can go a lot of ways. I think we all gravitated toward the “horror’ish” route based on the location we had to use but it doesn’t have to be the ONLY way to interpret it. More in the discussion.

The Results ::

The winner is… (after the jump)

Photographer B, Dave Martinez, won the GOYA shootout! He spanked us all with a total of 1,148 votes (45% of the total votes calculated). Dave wins a $50 gift certificate to B&H Photo!

When Dave emailed the image to me to put on the blog I knew immediately that his was going to be the winning shot. Dave said he worked on a number of different interpretations with the models but he felt that he wasn’t getting the emotions out of them that he wanted. Part of this, Dave says, was his inexperience directing. Keep in mind that Dave was part of this crew because I met him at our Photo 101 course about six months ago. He’s new to photography. It’s a great example of the student kicking the teacher’s ass! Great job Dave!

During one of his first attempts of the day he turned around and saw that panel of glass and wondered what it would look like lit from behind. Since he didn’t really feel he was getting the emotion he wanted from the models he turned to a more simplistic interpretation of the theme. He says he felt like he was copping out by going this route but at the end of the day, he felt it was a lot stronger than his other attempts. He shot a number of variations of this scene and felt the pulled back, wider shot worked best. Yes, the image is a cliché but it has a good spin on it by NOT cropping in tight to the hand. Again, when he emailed it to me my thought was it was the winner. It’s just so simple and effective.

I really appreciate the fact that Dave recognized he was struggling with the direction of the models so he went a different route, kept it simple, and beat us all by a large margin.

The Discussion ::

2,500 votes have come in for the contest so, to some viewers, each photographer interpreted the word enough to illicit a vote. Some folks commented that they could not vote for any of them because they felt the word was never interpreted correctly. Let’s talk about that.

What is fear to you? There is the fear of death, pain, disease, etc. There is also the fear of not being smart enough, good enough, pretty enough, wealthy enough. Fear of taxes, kids getting in trouble, pregnancy, etc, etc, etc. Fear can go in a lot of directions. Here is what we were all thinking as we were shooting for this assignment.

I was really impressed with Luanne Dietz’s interpretation.  She is Photographer A. Her image is this one…

Luanne approached this theme by asking her subject, Mych, what he was fearful of. Mych responded that he is afraid of death so Luanne ran with that idea. Her approach was to create an image for the subject. She thought the rectangle box in the carpet on the landing could represent a casket. Add to that the creative framing of the broken spindle on the bannister as an implement of pain or destruction and I thought her interpretation was successful for what she was trying to achieve. I would like to see a little more direction given to Mych to create a pose that says “death” more than “sleep” but overall, good job.

Luanne says that if she had to do it again she would stay with the same concept but put more time into directing the subject to convey more of an emotion from him. She showed the image to Mych on the back of her camera and he couldn’t even look at it so in that way Luanne was very successful in interpreting her subject’s fear as a photo.  She also feels that she would have worked with lighting a bit more instead of going with the available light.

Luanne’s thought was to create something that wasn’t completely obvious. She wanted to find a different way to convey fear than what you may stereotypically go to first as an idea of “fear”.

In speaking with Luanne after the results have been tallied she made an excellent point that all of us forgot to think about the viewer in some ways.  You see, all of us had three days in this place and it was very creepy and strange. There were strange sights, sounds, smells, things, rooms, etc. Our experience being inside of the place for a number of days probably insulated us from thinking about how viewers who have never been in this old mansion might feel.  Good point Luanne.

Photographer D is Megan Case. She shot this image…

Megan says that anytime she has a nightmare it is of someone chasing her trying to harm her. She decided it would be kind of funny to go with a B Movie poster idea. What’s interesting is that some folks commented that they didn’t like this image because it looked like a B Movie poster. So in some ways, she was totally successful with her idea.  I would like to see the model only casting one shadow on the wall. That would mean spending more time feathering the light creating the shadow off of her enough to get rid of the second shadow but still cast the shadow of the arm. That arm belongs to her super awesome husband, Rob (AKA Scrim Bitch).

Megan says that if she had this assignment to do again she would have made an image that was more vague in context and subject so that it could have more of an open interpretation by viewers of the photo. That’s probably an aspect to Dave’s winning shot that helped him win this contest.

Photographer E was our business manager, Sherri.

Sherri wanted to use the elements of some sort of disaster combined with loneliness. Fear of being alone. Fear of what ever crazy predicament is going on. Etc. Sherri says that if she were to do it again she would stay with the same concept but spend more time directing the subject in order to convey the feeling better. In Sherri’s defense, she was in charge of a lot of logistics and did not have much time to get something thrown together.

Photographer F is our new studio manager, Dan Depew. Dan is currently in Bangkok so I have not had a chance to talk to him about his shot. His shot was this one…

She’s holding a telephone handset FWIW if you didn’t pick up on that before.

Lastly, I was photographer C with this image…

I shot four specific set ups for the concept. Two of them involved screaming. One of them involved being trapped. And finally the image above. It started out as another “screaming” attempt but Bonnie, the model in the photo, was such a sweet girl that getting fear out of her was nearly impossible to do. She would scream and then start laughing. It was funny. So, I had to take it a different direction and I decided to go in a horror movie direction with fear being more of an emotion I would want the viewer to feel than the subject to convey. I had directed her through a number of emotions and this one translated as the most believable. I then liked more of a quiet solitude of the trapped mirror image. I’m still not sure if I made the right decision to lighten her eyes in the main part of the shot.

If I had to do it over again I would have gone darker and dirtier, and like Megan Case said, more vague as to subject matter so that it could be interpreted differently for different people.  I am happy with my image above and for all of the images I shot that day I feel this is my best one. To do it all over again I would go a different direction though yet I do stand by my photo and I do not regret my editing choice for this shootout.

The common thing that ALL of us struggled with… directing our subjects. As a photographer you are also a director. It’s a learned skill. If you don’t like working with people or if you find yourself to be very shy, then portrait photography is going to be a challenge for you.


I figure there are three audiences to speak to with your photographs.

A) Your subject / client

B) Yourself

C) Anonymous viewers of your work

I specifically did not want to put interpretations into the original blog post. I suppose the most successful photographs out there are the ones that can speak to all three audiences at one time. The reason I did not want to explain any of these photos is to see how they ranked without interpretation. I feel as though a photograph should stand on it’s own without explanation. Explanations can also change the way the viewer sees the image. It can sway your idea or emotion of the image. We don’t always get the opportunity to explain our work so we have to work on making sure it stands on it’s own.

If you are still with us here, do any of these explanations sway the way you voted? If you didn’t think “fear” the first time around do you think that now? After all this talking do you have a different perspective on this set of images or does it support your original thoughts and emotions about the images?

Given an old abandoned mansion where do you think you may have taken this assignment?

Thanks for being a part of it everyone!

Cheers, Zack


  • Doug Robertson said on February 6, 2010

    Going through them again, I still love “E”. But, loneliness is something I’m not good at. Now I have ideas on the them of fear, maybe I should try them sometime…

  • Doug Robertson said on February 6, 2010

    I would have tried a wide wide shot with just a shaft of light striking a lone figure crouched in the fetal position. Surrounded by brokenness and alone in the dark.

    Should have added that to my last comment.

  • ATLDOC said on February 6, 2010

    Nice job to all of you. Great to hear the ideas behind the pictures.

  • Aubry C said on February 6, 2010

    Props to all the photogs……this was fun to see the results of this challenge. You have inspired me to GOMA and shoot a “fear” inspired mini shoot. :-)

  • Mscichlid said on February 6, 2010

    I think a capture of the model laughing and the serious face in the mirror would have captured a sense of the fear of losing ones mind.

  • Joshua said on February 6, 2010

    Great job to all of you fine photogs [Twitter-speak for photographer]!
    I still like Luanne’s approach the best, but I do like the Dave’s ability to remove the model’s variability in such a subjective ….well….subject.

  • Simon Grosset said on February 6, 2010

    Like Zack’s whole “One Light’ thing, sometimes simplicity is the best answer – as in Dave’s photo….

  • Dave said on February 6, 2010

    Thanks Zack for the opportunity to learn on this shoot. I would never think of myself as kicking the teacher’s ass. I got lucky. I’ve got a lot to learn. I was honored to have been asked to be on location and part of this shoot out.

    We all approached the theme differently and many of you interpreted each differently as well. Something for me to reflect on. Everyone has different ideas of fear, some said loneliness, death, heights, failure, spiders, and jumping out of an airplane. All very good examples of things that can cause fear. For this challenge, we were all in the same location and a very interesting location as well. Although we were free to do our own interpretation, we were still using the same location and that made it more of a challenge to do something different than the photographer next to you. We even helped each other with setup and that drove us to try something different. It was Megan Case’s hand in my shot, so credit goes to her as well. I had my own paralyzing fear that day, when Zack said we were going to have a shootout. Talk about being put on the spot, my mind went blank. If I could figure a way to capture that, I would have.

    Yes, mine was a bit cliche and not totally original, but it’s something that many identified with probably because of horro films. Zack asked me if I would do something different if I did it again. I’d really like to push my self in directing a model as that’s something I feel I need to work at. Later I got to think about what frightens me and how would I shoot it on a different day or location? What scares me is drowning. Once again, the image that comes to mind is a hand coming out of the water and splashing around. Maybe you can see the face, maybe it’s murky and the only thing visible is the hand breaking the surface of the water. Once again, I’m drawn to using a hand (I don’t know why, just the first thing that comes to my mind). I think it’s because it’s not literal. Anyone can envision themselves in that position. Sometimes the lack of information allows the imagination to fill in your greatest fears. Take a look at the shower scene in Pshyco. The image was implied. How about the scene in Reservoir Dogs? We never actually saw the ear get cut off, we only saw images that implied that it was.

    I hope that I can participate in another shootout. I think I got lucky. Either way, it’s was a great learning experience and I’ve got this discussion to draw upon when I shoot. Great job by all the photographers, I feel lucky and blessed to have been a part of this and to have made new friends.


  • Howard Haby said on February 6, 2010

    Ok, cliche or not, if something is really scary then it will create fear in you. Yes, we become desensitized, but if it’s believable then something will happen in you. It just works. With a lot of subjects, it’s been done before, so fear (with a million “B” movies and horror films out there) would just be a hard subject to shoot, if you want to be really original. I voted for the winner because when I looked at it, I felt fear and I think it was because there was so much left for you to fill in on your own, essentially you create your own fear. Something about the color of the glass panel (that grayish/greenish color) kind of moved something in me too. Just great mood. And it’s all personal. Zack’s image was awesome too, just all around well done. This I would have voted second. I thought it was just really well done. I got caught up in “This photo is really cool”, though instead of the emotion of fear.It is awesome though. Great job done by all.

  • Amy Clifton said on February 6, 2010

    When I saw Dave’s photo, I literally lost my breath a little. Cliche or not, it freaked me out. Who isn’t afraid of imprisonment, torture, solitude, being forgotten…whatever all that image conveys? I also love Zack’s. It was a close second for me, only because the two faces are staring into my soul in completely different ways. *shiver* I completely disagree with the discussion that these images overall don’t convey fear just because they don’t convey every possible source of fear. It appears that you were a haunted house of sorts, so of course that is where you are likely to go (rather than fear of taxes…). Anyway, I love the explanation for Luanne’s work, and I think his pose is perfect for the death/coffin theme. Doesn’t look asleep, looks like he’s in a coffin (which obviously is a fear for the model)!

  • Beki Tillotson said on February 6, 2010

    This was a great post! Loved hearing the point of view and explanation from each photographer, especially Luanne. I would almost prefer to see the model face down instead of face up, but after the casket explanation I love the face up pose even more than before. It helps me see the image in a new way and I totally love that! Great work by everyone!

  • Rhonda said on February 6, 2010

    Congratulations Dave! Good job. :)

    Although I missed this day with the shootout, having been in the mansion the other two days I agree with Luanne that perhaps one of the reasons the visions didn’t come across as clearly is that the viewer didn’t have the super freaky experience of being and working in the mansion. I’ve never been in a creepier place, and viewing all the images brought that feeling back because I could picture exactly where the images were taken. I think everyone did a great job.

    So…since it was Megan’s hand in the winning picture does she get the anthropologie gift card? 😉

  • linda kuo said on February 6, 2010

    Meant to vote but forgot and missed the deadline but for me it was between Dave the winner and your shot C. After your explanations, A held more interest for me but in the end the main reason I went with B was for the very reason that Dave changed directions. Models didn’t evoke any believable emotions. Your shot was so close, but in the end the main shot of her felt empty. The shot in the mirror was excellent. Liked that a lot and that was the secret ingredient to making it spooky. I congratulate Dave for realizing he was not getting his intended outcome and finding another solution. If I were a client that is what I would want. I discussed with you Zack that that was something that made shoots challenging for me. Directing models. I work with professionals but they are so used to being “cued” that sometimes more experience isn’t desired but I have learned a lot because I keep communication very open and from time to time ask them if I’m being clear of if they have any suggestions or comments or ask them their thoughts. I have learned a lot from doing that. As you mentioned, would have liked to see some vague entries left to interpretation. How fun was that project. Wish I could have participated.

  • Cati said on February 7, 2010

    Well, after reading explanations I have to say it only changes things in two cases.

    First one is with the first pic, as I didn’t really saw the pic as related to fear of death the first time around. Seing it now I can do some constructive critique and say that what I would change is the position of the body, trying to do something more dramatic.
    Second one would be one by photographer F. I couldn’t tell this was a telephone. I can understand better now, though the image doesn’t provoque fear in me.

    Rest of them still prevails.

    As for me? Don’t know. I woul’ve shot the model in fetal position cornered in a staircase or an armchair, with hair all crazy and eyes wide open, sweat dripping. Something kind of crazy, surrounded by abandoned objects, babydolls, skates…
    Just yesterday I was at an abandoned building and it was kind of creepy. I’m right in the mood for that.

    But you’re just right, the most difficult part is to direct models and get the right emotion you’re trying to picture. Great work to all of the photographers, it’s super hard to construct powerful images while directing people.

  • Steve Perks said on February 7, 2010

    A photograph can be compared to a joke…
    If you have to explain it, it’s not that funny.

    Interesting thoughts on directing the subject and having to be a people person.

    In my fledgling music photography venture, I like to do a live concert shoot with the band/artist before a portrait shoot.
    It gives me a chance to share a laugh and a beer with them and get to know their mannerisms so we are all comfortable for the session.

    I loved each and every image in this GOYA for different reasons but remember thinking at first viewing that some of the models’ expressions looked a little contrived.
    Fear is a primal instinct and difficult to fake.

    Maybe next time, drop a tarantula in on the set?

  • Gordon said on February 7, 2010

    Well done to the winner! I was one of the abstaining voters and even after reading the thought processes I’m still not swayed. I completely get why the photographers did what they did and it’s great to hear their thought processes though!

    I meet up with a group of like minded photographers every Monday night in the pub and last week we discussed this shoot of yours. We found it so hard to think of how to approach such a shoot that we decided to have a go ourselves. So we are going to each pick one of the seven deadly sins and try to come up with something….I’m bricking it!

  • zack said on February 7, 2010

    Gordon – To make it interesting meet up with them next time, pick a word and then go shoot it right then and there! :-)

  • Steve K said on February 7, 2010

    Like half of your readers, I voted for the eventual winner. The other photos, while well executed technically, didn’t convey the theme to me.

    You also asked what we (I) might do. Well, my personal fear is fear of the unknown, so I’d go with that. I’d have a model moving into glare light on her, maybe holding up a hand to eye to her eye to communicate that she was trying to see past it, and have a very subtle villain in the semi-darkness on the other side (perhaps just some one with a cigarette, or softly lit from outside a window to simulate moonlight.) If no second model was available, then that “moonlight” could fall on a weapon, or something that could double as a weapon like a bat or a fire extinguisher.

  • zack said on February 7, 2010

    Dan, photographer F, just emailed his explanation…

    I enjoyed the comments on the GOYA post. The idea behind my photo was very simple: I had a camera, model, and fifteen minutes to illustrate “fear”. We were sitting outside a mansion that had been boarded up for thirty years and was previously an insane asylum; so I wasn’t thinking about abstract interpretations of the word fear. 

    I knew I wanted to have the model searching for a way out of fearful situation and the ballroom had the space necessary to show that. I’ve always loved the erie and dramatic feel of Gregory Crewdson’s work and wanted to experiment with a theatrical lighting style. 

    So I put a 10 degree grid on a high boy back right and lit Jessica with a beauty dish. We cranked up the fog machine and Dave sprayed fog behind and above the model while I shot from the corner of the room.

    I thought all of the photos rocked by the way. We were given a short amount of time to plan and execute and I think everyone did an awesome job and had a lot of fun working together. If we’d had a couple hours or days to think about the theme, the images might have varied more from the horror film look. But what better place to shoot that type of fear?

  • Megan Case said on February 7, 2010

    Congratulations to Dave for a simple and well executed shot…..and the “hand actor” in the shot was simply amazing. Ha! Ha!

    After thinking a lot on the topic of fear, I would have to say that my everyday fears are much more related to fear of rejection, fear of failure, fear of just not being good enough…..I’m still chewing on how to best portray this through a photograph.

    Being surrounded by such talented photographers that were all willing to help each other out…and push each other to suceed was the best part of this shoot. We were all each other’s lighting assistants and “scrim bitches”. Thanks to everyone involved for making this day such a success.

  • Tim Rogan said on February 7, 2010

    Congratulations Dave. When it isn’t working just start looking around. Good lesson.

  • Frank said on February 7, 2010

    Thank you for the detailed explanation of the shots, very inspirational.

    Funny, I voted for Pic-C ( you) because for me it is very creepy.

    The expression of the girl in the mirror is so strange and gives me goose bumps.

    We are all different….

  • Luanne Dietz said on February 7, 2010

    What an adrenaline rush it is to be given a word, and a short amount of time to execute a never before conceived concept. I swear I left for the trek across the parking lot to the bathrooms with the thought of illustrating “pain” and when I returned the word had switched to “fear” and it was go time. It’s times like this when your instincts as a photographer kick in. For me, available light is what I know best, so I ran with it.

    I remember on set many of us saying how hard it was to direct our models to get the expressions we were going for. I commend Dave for taking that frustration and looking elsewhere! Great Job:)

    Everyone did a fantastic job.. Such a fun, collaborative experience! It was so great working together and seeing the individual concepts come to life with the help of each other.

    I know personally that place was scary enough you could have shot a rock in the hallway and I’d been afraid. But take that rock out of context to a web space viewed from the comforts of home (with all the lights on mind you) and that rock becomes just that, a rock in a hallway. Such a great reminder on the mood and feeling we as photographers have the responsibility to capture.

    Who would have thought that through fear we would find our need for direction 😉

  • Seth Floyd said on February 8, 2010

    Care to follow up possibly in another post about “direction”? Im fairly comfortable with giving direction for getting a shot that I want but I feel I could be better at it. How did you develop that aspect and how would you recommend becoming better at it other than just simply practice, practice, practice? Any tips for us?

  • zack said on February 15, 2010

    Sure can Seth. Will put that in the que for blog ideas! Thanks!


  • chrisdavid42 said on February 8, 2010

    I think you are correct in your assessment that directing models, especially ones not used to receiving direction, is quite accurate. As a hobbyist/photographer working patiently through the “whatever job I can get for free” phase, I have been blessed with three shoots over the past 4 weeks and have noticed with each one that directing the models/subjects is definitely a skill to be developed.
    As far as illustrating fear goes, the commenter who wrote that it is so individual is correct. I loathe horror/gore movies. I find them boring and unrealistic. However, I refuse to watch movies about children being taken from their parents. For me, as a parent, having my children taken or hurt is the most fearful subject I could conceive of. I would probably have attempted to convey that fear. My second worst fear, however, is being buried alive, so in a pinch I might have gone with that theme.

    Good Job from everyone. Zach, your style gives you away. I knew you had to be A or C (compliments to photographer A there.) If I had voted I would have picked A, then C. Thanks for sharing this stuff.

  • brad said on February 8, 2010

    HEY ZACK, here’s an idea…

    Why don’t you throw out a GOYA challenge to blog readers?

    You pick a word or theme, give everyone a week or two to shoot, and then blog readers submit entries. Pick a shortlist and then get readers to vote! Doesn’t have to be a prize except pride!

    There’s been a lot of discussion about how to best shoot a concept, so why not let people put there photography where their mouth is!

  • zack said on February 15, 2010

    We are doing just that Brad! Way to read our minds! More to come when we have a chance to breath!


  • Stacy Hughes said on February 11, 2010

    Zack this was a wonderful GOYA assignment and like all your assignments it brought with it learning and inspiration. Well done. I really went back and forth between the winner and yours. They were the only two that actually creeped me out at first glance. I ended up voting for B for the very reason you stated. I didn’t find any of the models believable and therefore the one basically without a model, was the best. I didn’t think any of the models looked fearful. Even your photo which was creepy and a great concept, the model looked almost serene and totally okay with the fact that she had a bizarre reflection in the mirror, as if it’s a regular occurance. Anyway, great job this was fun to vote on and participate in. someday I will get to come to workshop and shoot with you. It’s on my bucket list. The best to you & the family~ Stacy

  • Lanne said on February 13, 2010

    My first thought of an abandoned mansion with fear as a theme was renovation… ha. I think i would have gone down that path as it is less obvious and the possibilities endless. Such fab images from your more horror approach though.

  • Jeanie Lasky said on March 18, 2010

    I agree with everything that was posted in this entry, I’m a loyal follower so please keep updating so frequently.

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