Photography at Dance Events

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I’ve been doing social dancing for more than ten years now in a variety of different scenes, and I’ve seen amazingly different expectations related to photography and videography. Within most dance scenes, the established norms aren’t questioned; they are perceived as positive at best, unavoidable at worst. As Eva in Chicago put it: “There are many photos of me that I sure wish weren’t out there, but they are, so not much to do about it.”

My experience has shown me that there are many ways of handling this. More than that, it has pushed me to want to create a dialogue on this topic. There are many questions to consider, whether you are an organizer, a teacher, a photographer, or a member of a social dance community.

Why are we taking photos and videos? Are there any reasons not to?

Usually dancers like having photos of themselves social dancing. These photos give us a chance to show off a favorite activity to our friends, they remind us of good times, and they help us feel part of the scene. Assuming they are flattering photos at good moments, of course. Sydney from Ann Arbor explained: “I appreciate when there are photographers at events because I think it’s fun to see me dancing somewhere and to be able to share that on social media.”

Organizers need photos for a different reason: advertising. They want to show that there are lots of happy people engaged in their events. “Photography and videography should be understood as definite marketing tools that will be used to promote said festival and workshop for future years,” said Brooklyn organizer Marc. Likewise, teachers like having photos of and with their students in order to promote their classes and get hired at festivals.

Most dancers accept this as necessary, but some scenes acknowledge that there are certain times and places when photography shouldn’t occur because it will get in the way of dancers being full engaged. And a few communities even respect that certain dancers don’t want to be photographed at all.

So there are several concerns to balance when creating a policy for a studio or event. We need marketing material to promote classes and parties in the future, but we want students to be able to focus and learn. We want to remember the good times, but we want dancers to have fun and feel comfortable.

When and where is it suitable to take photos and/or videos?

No policy is going to be perfect, but I think it’s important to be intentional about crafting one, rather than just letting the interests of a few overshadow the rest.

I was at a festival this year that had 3 or 4 photographers. In every single workshop hour, we got at least 2 different photographers. Personally I found it very distracting – not just the fact of someone walking around with a camera rather than participating in the class, but also because then I was worried about what I looked like rather than what I was trying to learn. I believe classes should be a safe space for people to try things out, taking ideas to extremes to figure out the limits of what can work for them. None of us want to be tagged publicly looking ridiculous, but sometimes we need to try ridiculous things as part of the learning process.

That’s not to say photography should never happen in class, though – it just helps to be unobtrusive. “I don’t like photographers during workshops; I am always wearing my concentrating face and am usually not a fan of the photos. I like it when I don’t know I am being photographed,” shared Lauren in Charleston.

Most teachers prefer that video be taken only at the end of a class. Personally, I ask students to put away their mobile phones and focus on the instruction, because I don’t believe you will learn as well just from checking videos later. There’s also concern over proprietary instructional material being publicly posted. Steve Ciki in NYC urged: “Ask teacher permission. Instructions during class constitute confidential materials owned by the teacher(s). Instructors under contract very often are required to sign a clause giving right to the organizer to record and use these contents. But even there it does not mean the full content of a class or routine could be used by an organizer.”

People tend to be less bothered by photography and videography during a social, but it still shouldn’t be invasive. “I think it’s important to understand that anyone at an event, whether they directly participate or not, have an influence on the mood, the flow, the good times,” shared a good friend of mine in NYC. Professional photographer Devon Rowland elaborated: “I think anyone with a camera walking around out on the dance floor is disruptive and I don’t do it.”

Shows and performances are probably the most recorded moments in our dance communities. Even this could do with a dash of common sense, though. I’ve been at festivals where it was impossible to see the stage over all the raised arms recording. In response to that problem, certain competition events in the swing world go so far as to ban amateur photography or recording, instead publishing high quality photos and videos from the professional team.

Even the pros can get in the way of the experience sometimes. Frances Tee in Seattle explained: “I was at a performance with a live camera man videotaping and it was quite annoying to see the camera going on and off the stage to get a better shot. That is distracting and detracts from the performance.”

As for spontaneous moments of performance, like in jam circles or lineups, some dancer would prefer to leave them as ephemeral, amazing experiences that are appreciated fully only in the moment. An inspiring dancer I know in London opposes constantly filming the action, saying of her favorite performance: “You had to be there. A video would be an insult to the spontaneous genius you just witnessed.”

Who are we allowed to capture in photos and video? Should we ask anyone’s permission? Should there be a form to sign?

When I started teaching kizomba, I took this very seriously. I created a media release form for students to sign if I was going to be recording during class and made class photos optional. “It is always best to get consent (written or verbal). In smaller settings it is much easier to do so,” agreed Kimberly in NC.

Ephraim, a professional photographer in Germany, suggests, “At the start of a lesson someone tells the group there will be some shots made for documentation of what has been done today. Whoever doesn’t want to be in the photographs only needs to tell the photographer and then they can be excluded, pixellated or whatever in the end.”

Of course at larger events it wouldn’t be practical to ask everyone’s permission individually. Braden Nesin, a professional photographer in Boston, explains: “From a US legal standpoint I have every right to take photos/video/audio so long as you have no reasonable expectation of privacy (and at a dance event on the social floor or in a group class you do not.) I can publish those photos, I can sell prints and downloads, and I can sell them to newspapers and magazines, but I cannot use them for advertising without the permission of anyone both featured and easily recognizable in the photo (so big group shots don’t count, but a photo of your face front and center while you’re dancing does.) Events cannot use them for fliers or other advertising without your permission. Many events post notice or have you sign a waiver stating that your likeness may be used commercially, but if they don’t they’re on the hook. You do not get any rights to the photos.”

The legal situation varies internationally, but just following the law isn’t necessarily going to create the best environment at a dance event. Another professional photographer shared with me: “I think it sucks that attendees have to decide between doing the fun thing they enjoy and not wanting to be photographed for promotional use. I think an event should get individual permission for photos they use on fliers, fb covers, etc for their event even if they have a signed release from their registration.”

In the meantime, you can always approach a photographer and ask for them to try to avoid capturing you. You could also suggest this nonverbally: “I have seen people turn their head and hold their hands up to their face when they don’t their picture taken and I think that’s the best way to send a message to the photographer,” said Dennis in Seattle.

When it comes to informal photos and videos, a little bit of respect goes a long way. Greg in DC shared, “When I’m being videoed I think it is common courtesy to ask me in advance. A few years ago, a woman’s friend took a video of her dancing with me and it felt invasive since she did not ask my permission.”

Where should these photos and videos be posted? Which photos shouldn’t be posted?

Well, we’ve been over the legal issues for public use of photos at dance events. My personal policy has been to share photos to the Facebook event or local Facebook group, unless I have permission to share more broadly. Keya in California said, “I think it depends on the setting…if it’s in my local community with people I know, then I am ok with someone taking photos and sharing with the community.”

The biggest complaint about photography is the indiscriminate publication of photos that the dancers featured don’t like. Our very own editor Jason Haynes shared, “I think its a problem when you have amateur photographers who take pics and post everything they’ve shot. Many times their lack of skill leads to the dancers being captured with awkward facial expressions and poses.”

It’s not only the amateurs at fault, though. “There have been many bad photos of me and others posted dancing,” says Courtney in VA. “It is also detrimental to promotions, if the photos chosen to represent the dance are awful.”

Nancy in Philadelphia suggests a simple rule of thumb: “If you think the photo is questionable or that someone may be offended, either don’t post it or ask first.”

Do you want to change the policy in your scene?

I had a very uncomfortable standoff at a kizomba event in Germany this year. On Sunday morning as I was walking into the workshop venue, I was confronted with a large man with a large camera. I put up my hand and tried to just keep walking – I wasn’t interested in being photographed just then. I had just a few minutes to get to an African dance class. He blocked my way and tried to speak coaxingly to me. I insisted that I did not want to be photographed, and he suggested that I would not be let past until I was. I finally put my bag between myself and the photographer and edged past until he gave way.

Kizomba events are well-known for being strongly focused on marketing, but I just don’t understand this kind of behavior. What does a coerced solo shot off the dance floor provide to the event or photographer? I’m sure there were plenty of others who were intimidated into unwanted photos that morning as well.

What about you? Is there something you’d like to see done differently in your dance community’s approach to photography or recording?

Let’s consciously choose our photography practices and policies, rather than blindly continuing whatever our scene’s current habits are.

4 Comments

  • Anonymous says:

    Thank you, Rachel, for a very good piece on photography in the dance setting.

    Taking photographs and videos has a great value to the dance community and evolution of dance. But there are pitfalls which you cover well.

    First, before I started dancing I was an avid amateur photographer and after a while got noticed by an organisation that held annual congresses with workshops, lectures and seminars. During breaks they used to project photos from the event for the participants to see. I and a friend got hired and we took lots of pictures. Often the participants came up to us and thanked us for the great pictures, often saying that they didn’t see us, and I attribute it to one thing which you mention: unobtrusiveness.

    If we noticed that someone was feeling awkward being photographed, we clearly lowered the camera to indicate that we weren’t taking any more photos of them (and didn’t use the ones we had already taken). Also, as an event photograper, your intention should be not to be noticed, and NEVER interrupt the event. The people there are paying to be there, not to model for you!

    Which brings me to your last section. I was at a big kizomba event in another european country (my home country) a couple of years ago. The event had 3 or 4 official photographers listed on their home page, but I ever only noticed two. One was a young eastern european lady who I only noticed after a flash went off in the room I was in. She was the very model of the kind of event photographer I admire and wanted to follow as a photograper. Always at the right place, never really noticed. Out of the way.

    The other was an entirely different kind of beast. He prefered to shoot with quite a wide angle lens which meant that he often came VERY close to the subjects for portrait pictures, often less than 2-3 feet. Having someone literally in your face like that, taking pictures with a lens and a perspective that distorts your facial features is NOT nice. Also, he just interrupted every class he took photos in.

    The worst foul was at a workshop with Kwenda Lima. We were asked to stop at step five in the routine and all couples were suddenly at a perfect line, facing the same way in a rather photogenic pose.

    Cue the photographer. He goes to the first couple in the line, crawls up real close and snaps a picture. Then starts to pixel peep, doing some adjustments and takes another picture. Then takes a step to the left up to the next couple. Repeat.

    The whole class (20+ couples if not more) were waiting instructions.

    After the fourth couple or so, Mr Lima, said something in the style “…aaand we wait for the photograper to finish” in a subtly sarcastic tone but still with his very tranquil ways. The photographer continues down the line, not sensing the mood or anything. Totally dull senses and no feeling of what is appropriate. After a few more couples the class forces the photographer to leave by continuing.

    Or, at least I thought that was the worst…

    Until the next morning. I had not attended the party, despite a live artist playing. But I still managed to miss the train and had to take the next one. Arriving at the station at the exact time the class was to start. Sprinting the short distance to the venue and dashing up the stairs I came to a grinding halt when there was a long line snaking down from the top floor. I tried to hurry on but everyone was in line, slowly inching upwards. Now I was at risk missing the start of one of the classes I looked most forward to. Trying to push through the line saying “I have already paid”, and someone else in front of me said “so have I”.

    Everyone should already have gotten their passes the day before so I didn’t understand the holdup. Until I got around the corner and saw just what you described to us.

    The photographer in question was standing at the top of the stair, not letting anyone pass until he had taken enough portrait pictures to be satisfied. Someone asked to be photographed with their friend to speed up the process but he replied in a very hash tone “Individual photos only!”

    That was it for me, I pushed my way through and walked up the final flight of stairs saying “I’m late for class, I am not in line to get photographed”.

    When I came to the top, the photographer put his hand on my chest, pushing me back, saying: “Everyone must be photographed”. I said “No, no photograph now, I’m going to class.”

    Then came one of the worst things I ever have heard anyone saying as an event photographer: “Then I will publish all the bad pictures I took of you yesterday” (as if I was horrified that he could have had unflattering pictures of me!).

    I didn’t reply and just ran to my class.

    A few minutes into the class a huge wave of enormous anger hit me and I was so furious. How can a photographer be SO f***ing unprofessional? I am speechless. Seldom have I felt so violated and infuriated.

    Later on, I am happy that the wave hit me when he wasn’t around. I am generally not a confrontative person, and happy that I have a long fuse. Because I would have taken his camera and trashed it against the marble floor as well as thrown him down the stairs, severely injuring him. That is how angry I was during the class. These two incidents had been surrounded by several other minor ones, always him being obnoxious, intrusive and self-obsessed with his status as a photographer, taking liberies.

    After the incident I contacted the organizers and wrote a very polite but informative recollection of the events. They never replied. A month later I met someone at another event and during the lunch break we got to talk a bit about events. Then I learned that she was a co-organziser for this event. I told her everything and she was sorry for my input not being responded to.

    She said that this very photographer had a “thing” where he always took individual photos of the attendees on the morning after the main party as a “fun thing”. I said that this did not excuse his unprofessionalism and bad behaviour. Interfering with the logistics of the event is appalling behaviour. Physically interfering and threatening people has no place in any civilized community.

    The next year I was very ambivalent about attending the next event. The organizers unwillingness to respond and listen to a paying customer had put me off.

    But on the day of the first workshops I was invited to a friends BBQ party and went there instead, thinking about taking a day pass for the second day instead. In the evening a girl joined the BBQ and told me she had been to the event. I asked how it was and she menitoned, passing, a photographer behaving strange.

    Silence… I immediately looked up the photographer on Facebook and showed his profile to her. “Yes, that is the guy!”

    So they had invited him back. e was even credited as a official photographer at the homepage of the event! That was it for me. From that day I am boycotting all events by that specific organizer. Someone who cares more about fraternizing with someone wanting to make a name for himself as a photographer in a small dance community over the people the event is organzied for does not deserve support, and their events should not get attendees.

    I am positively sure that you, Rachel, and I have met the same photographer, even though the events are a few years apart. And I am extremely sad to hear that he still can continue to destroy the experience for other dancers. I wish more people would respect their own integrity and ask to get what they are paying for, not being guinea pigs for some experimenting guy with a camera.

    I am not going to name him, just as I want to stay anonymous as it would be trivial to get to know his identity from knowing who I am and where I have been dancing. I am not trying to slander an individual rather point out an appalling and unwanted behavour.

    But I do encourage anyone at a dance event to react to bad behaviour, from ANYONE. Just because someone is “official” doesn’t give them a free pass to be an asshole. On the countrary, they should be the gold standard to which everyone else tries to adhere.

    A lead groping female follows would be thrown out and blacklisted long ago. The photographer in quesiton was groping everyone in a non-physical way.

    Personally, if I ever see him again at an event I will walk up to him and say that he is not allowed to photograph me and if he so much as interrupt a workshop I am paying for I will either make him leave the room or make him refund any costs I had for that event (travel expenses, hotels etc) in order to abort my attendance at the event. If he ever lays his hand on me as he did in that stairwell, I will act in self-defense and remove the physical threat. If he takes any photos of me that are published, I will pursue legal action. Otherwise he is free to document the event, as long as he avoids me like the plague. His three strikes with me have all been used up, and I do not tolerate any more infractions.

    Thanks for your time reading this far. And may you have a great time dancing in the future.

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