Blog Home Contributor How to Approach Stock Photography as Anthropology

Co-founder of the production company HEX, Gavin Booth, goes deep on what it means to take an authentic photo.

What does it mean for a photo to be authentic? For Gavin Booth, co-founder of the production company HEX, the answer is fairly straightforward: A photo is authentic if it captures something (a relationship, an interaction, a moment in time) that’s real. 

“The word authenticity is used a lot [in stock photography]. But, actually, if it’s a photo of friends who are not really friends, it’s not authentic,” Booth says. “If they were cast and invited to a studio one day, that’s not authentic in any way.”

Singer Performing
Image via HEX.

HEX, which Booth co-founded in 2013, takes what he calls an “anthropological” approach to sourcing its subjects. “We might do general casting through platforms like Backstage,” he says. But once the team finds an interesting person to work with, they don’t just pair that person with a pre-existing idea. They build the idea around the person. 

“You ask them, ‘What is your scene?’” Booth explains. “You kind of peel back the layers, build up a relationship.”

Drag Queen
Image via HEX.

The team might learn, for instance, that they’re working with a skateboarder or a drag queen or a guy who met his girlfriend at IHOP. “‘She was a waitress and I came in,’” Booth says, imagining the conversation. From there, they’ll tap into a subject’s subcultures and networks to build out a story.

Chinese Restaurant
Image via HEX.

“Once you find one person who is embedded, you empower that person,” Booth says. “Because they know people. They introduce you to four or five scenarios, and you maybe pick three.”

Singing Karaoke
Tell the subject’s story. Image via HEX.

“We’re not working off a spreadsheet here,” Booth continues. “We’re not money-balling this, we’re not predicting, we’re not looking at sales reports and saying, ‘Aha!’ We just want to find a story that’s genuine.”

The Importance of Representation

Finding a story that’s genuine means paying more than lip-service to diversity.

When Booth co-founded HEX, it was in part to address the fact that he didn’t see the people who surrounded him in New York City reflected in stock photography. And, that hasn’t exactly changed.

Attractive Young Women
Find the vibe of a city or place and capture it. Image via HEX.

“We still don’t see the people that I live with, the people that I see in Queens on a day-to-day basis,” he says. “If you’re on the subway and take a study of the 100 people that you might witness in that day, and get a composite of what those people truly look like, it’s nothing like what you see in commercial media.”

Fashion Designer
Capture images of people doing what they do best, naturally. Image via HEX.

“[Representation] has become big in the last few years,” he continues. “But, the polished version of diversity and the polished version of representation is not diversity and representation.”

Young Rapper
Diversity shouldn’t be exclusive to your images. Employ a diverse crew, as well. Image via HEX.

In addition to ensuring diversity in front of the camera, Booth says HEX is addressing diversity behind the camera. “The real representation comes when you have a diverse set of creators and representation at the point of production,” Booth says. “The way we approach working with photographers, we’re not looking for the safe bets. We’re not looking to copy anything else.”

Building a Rapport

HEX practices a sort of guerilla approach to shooting, and in order for that to work, everyone needs to feel comfortable with each other. “I’m not just going to helicopter in for the day and take some pictures,” Booth says. “That isn’t the goal. No, we spend time with [our subjects] in the days before the shoots.” They go out for drinks or lunch. They talk.

“If you’re working with somebody who’s eighteen or nineteen, and you go into their environment—you’re some white business-guy from New York just rocking up with some people, like, ‘Okay, we’re just going to document you’—that’s the opposite of what we want to achieve here,” Booth says.

By building a rapport, he’s able to get shots that are not only authentic but also alive.

Take this party photo, for instance:

“It was a Friday evening, I think, and it was a house party, so it was an organic scene,” Booth says.

Most importantly, he adds: “We had fun.”

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Cover image via HEX.