The legendary allure of Harlem’s Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater is interpreted for 21st century audiences in Jennifer Warren’s three-chapter multimedia piece, captured and produced for BBC News Interactive. During weekly visits over two months’ time, Warren gathered stills and audio of the action onstage and behind the scenes. Each time she returned, her access expanded to result in a candid black and white portrait of the show, steeped in tradition and brimming with life.
Web site: www. jennwarren.net
Project: Apollo Theater Amateur night for BBC News interactive
All images in this article © Jennifer Warren.
ASMP: How long have you been in business?
JW: I have been a freelance photographer since 2003.
ASMP: How long have you been an ASMP member?
JW: I joined ASMP in October 2007 as a Merit Member, and intend to continue as a pro member this year.
ASMP: What are your photographic specialties?
JW: My specialty is documentary photography and photo essay. I am developing my skills in multimedia, and am also a writer.
ASMP: Please describe the processes and techniques central to the making of this work.
JW: Backstage at the Apollo was created for BBC News Interactive as one of their first multimedia pieces for the web using Soundslides. I spent two months revisiting the Apollo Theater for Amateur Night, watching contestants go through the competition and meeting new talent. The more I returned to the Apollo, the more accessible the theater and contestants became. Access and the ability to shoot candid is key to my photography. It’s very much about the connections I have with my subjects.
ASMP: What do you consider your most valuable piece of equipment?
JW: It’s a toss-up between my Canon 5D and 24-70mm 2.8 L series lens.
ASMP: What is unique about your style/approach or what sets you and your work apart from other photographers?
JW: I spend a lot of time with my subjects, returning and building personal relationships. I gain people’s trust and help them feel comfortable, and in turn gain better access for my projects.
ASMP: How did the idea of the Apollo Theater Amateur Night documentary come about? Did you pitch the story or did the client approach you?
JW: I pitched the idea ‘Backstage at the Apollo’ to my BBC News photo editor. I was brainstorming a local story here in New York and have always loved Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater. With an international audience, the BBC thought it was a good idea for a feature on New York — something different from the daily news, more intimate and historical.
ASMP: Had you worked with the BBC before? What kind of direction were you given in approaching this story?
JW: I have worked with BBC News Interactive a number of times since 2003. After my editor approved the pitch, I was pretty much given free reign to photograph, capture the audio, and produce the piece how I envisioned. Once I submitted a sketch version of the multimedia project, the BBC web team stepped in to produce it for their site.
ASMP: Was your client or additional crew present while you were shooting? If so please describe their interactions with you and your subjects.
JW: I usually work alone on these kinds of documentary projects. BBC had no other staff or crew present, so the interactions with my subjects was solely dependent on them, the camera, and me.
ASMP: Please describe your background in shooting/producing multimedia work. Do you have any experience in video or film?
JW: I started experimenting with audio in 2000, with the Sony MiniDisc recorder and an omni-directional microphone. A couple years ago I purchased the Roland Edirol and cardioid mic for better and clearer interviews. My knowledge is self-taught, and I attend workshop trainings when I can. I don’t have much experience in video or film, but plan to expand my education in New Media, specifically in post-production.
ASMP: Please describe the process and the progression you used for capturing both images and audio in this project.
JW: It was important to return to the theater a number of times to ensure that I got the images and audio I needed. Being responsible for both the shooting and capturing audio, I was careful to balance my time and set aside time for the contestant and staff interviews. Gathering ambient sound during the performances, while I was shooting, was the easy part.
ASMP: What, if any, were the specific challenges you faced in working in this environment and with these subjects? Please describe any particular strategies you used to address these challenges.
JW: Working in a theater is fun and there is a lot going on at all times. It is challenging in the sense that the staff and contestants cannot easily be pulled away for portraits or interviews. Finding a quiet area for audio interviews was challenging. During performances, the Apollo has specific rules for photography — no lighting, no photography in the center aisle or after the third song. My access increased as my trust increased, after returning a few times, so I was able to go backstage and photograph throughout the performances, but still no lights or access to the center aisle.
ASMP: Was there any particular moment that became an epiphany in your documentation or your connection to your subjects?
JW: The key was to return to the theater a number of times. Since the Apollo Amateur Night performances happen only once a week, I became a regular visitor for two months. The first two visits I was careful to follow the rules and not interrupt the rehearsals. By the third visit I had an All Access Pass and the tech and band members were inviting me backstage. The shows were an epiphany in the sense that I could really just enjoy the show and shoot more experimental images.
ASMP: There is a very candid feeling to many of the images in this piece. How do you get your subjects to relax and ignore your presence?
JW: Time. I also feel very comfortable in this environment, which helps to create a positive energy for my subjects. I love hip-hop music and have been a fan of the Apollo Amateur Night for years.
ASMP: Please tell us about your decision-making in presenting the images in black-and-white?
JW: Much of my work is in black-and-white, despite the switch to digital. Although I miss Tri-X I don’t miss the added cost, especially when working on self-produced projects. I generally shoot RAW + High-Res JPG, with the JPG set to monochrome for my LCD review on location. Visually, I work and think in black and white.
ASMP: Did you also edit and produce the final multimedia piece? How much time did this take?
JW: I edited and produced the final multimedia piece featured on my Web site, and sent this three-chapter version to the editing team at BBC. The production took a few weeks to put together. They shortened the story into a one-chapter piece so it would fit more seamlessly into their web format.
ASMP: While working at the Apollo Theater, were there any notable images that you saw but were not able to capture?
JW: Not being able to photograph in the theater’s center aisle during performances was difficult. I knew there were many great images possible from the center, close-ups of the contestants on stage. I ‘made do’ with a few images from either side of the stage, and then focused on the contestants backstage — their personalities and rehearsals.
ASMP: Did your work on this project result in new contacts or clients?
JW: I received a lot of great feedback on this project, and saw it as a great exercise in building my experience with multimedia and audio. I tested and purchased new microphones for the project, and spent time teaching myself Flash. Every day there is more to learn in multimedia.
ASMP: You also work with a number of non-profit organizations. Do you produce primarily stills or multimedia for these clients, or both?
JW: It depends on what the client wants. Many non-profits are interested in multimedia, and this interest is growing, as web-based projects become a more popular and affordable way to reach donors and the public. Even if a client is only interested in still photography, I will generally interview the beneficiaries for caption and background information.
ASMP: Please describe how you see your work and career evolving in the next five to ten years? Are there any particular clients or projects that you aspire to work with?
JW: I anticipate that my experience with multimedia and digital applications will continue to expand, though I plan to work with more producers to handle the audio editing and Flash — it’s very time consuming and I’d rather be shooting. Over the next 5 to 10 years I intend to continue my work with non-profit organizations, and to give life to the images in other markets: editorial, corporate and exhibitions. Currently I am working on a book project with a writer here in New York, and am also commissioned by an NGO based in DC to document their programs in Southern Sudan.