I Fucked up a Portrait of the Navy Seal Who Shot Osama Bin Laden
When a location portrait went sideways and I struggled to pull it back
When I launched this newsletter I promised to throw the doors wide open. But in reality, I have shared more successes than failures. Today I’m sharing an image that I don't consider strong and I will tell you what went wrong. It’s the failures that I learn the most from. I hope you learn something from mine.
In July, I accepted a portrait assignment to photograph Robert O’Neill, the former US Navy Seal who assassinated Osama bin Laden. The circumstances of the shoot were not ideal because the budget was limited; I would have to shoot on location with a single assistant and minimal equipment. I knew I would need to cut corners with production and that worried me, but I said yes to the assignment because the idea of photographing the man who shot Osama excited me. I wondered if the image could find a place in my larger body of work about the war on terror.
The interview and shooting location was at the American Legion Post 52 Memorial Garden in Scarsdale, New York. I arrived two hours early with an assistant to scout the garden and conceptualize the image. It was my idea to light Robert with hard, Rembrandt-like lighting, similar to the way I photographed my series “The Afghans,” but I planned to make the overall lighting scheme more sophisticated by adding some fill light, perhaps even a hair light.
My assistant Josh and I found a semi-secluded spot in the garden between some bushes and a tree. We went to work setting up a background and light stands and began testing the light. Time vanished, as it always does setting up on location. In hindsight, I should have had extra stands and black flags to block the light and a digital tech assisting us. We had the equipment we needed, but with the limited budget there was no excess equipment for troubleshooting. Nevertheless, I tested the lighting on Josh and we got it to a place I was happy with.
Robert arrived on time, and as I shook hands with him all I could see was his bright white polo shirt. This would make it hard to isolate his head and face, and the logo on the chest which would be distracting in a tight portrait. I asked him if he had another shirt in his car, but he didn't.
As I directed Robert to the studio in the garden, the sun came out from behind the clouds, shining a significant amount of daylight into our makeshift set. Robert got in position, I quickly metered the light, and Josh dialed back our key light to compensate for the sunlight—but the lighting ratio had shifted. I made a few frames and told Robert I needed to make some quick final adjustments to the light. I looked at the back of the camera to see what was happening.
The white shirt was hot; the sun had added ambient ‘fill’ light, and the way the light fell on Robert's face looked different from the test I had done on Josh. This was to be expected—the same light can look completely different on people based on their face structure and skin tone. But the dark and contemplative portrait I was aiming for was not coming together, the white shirt compromised any expression Robert gave me.
As my panic built behind the camera, the sun oscillated in and out of the clouds causing Josh and I to scramble after a changing lighting ratio. But then I had an idea.
Could I ask the man who shot bin Laden to take his shirt off? I did, and at first he said no. I lowered my camera and explained that the white shirt was too bright and distracting. For a Seal, Robert was pretty easygoing, so he obliged and asked me not to include his “out-of-shape body”.
This wasn't just my show, the writer was also present and needed to do the interview, so after fifteen minutes we wrapped. Fifteen minutes is normally a generous amount of time to make a portrait, but when the lighting needs to be adjusted and clothing needs to be managed, fifteen minutes feels like three minutes.
My first mistake in this scenario was agreeing to a location shoot. If there is no reason for the location, shoot in a studio. The second mistake was agreeing to shoot on location without a budget that would allow me to have the resources I needed to mitigate the variables that can arise on location. I should have had a tent to shoot or a large flag to block the sun. My third mistake was not checking with my editor or the subject about the subject's wardrobe choice—this one is on me. And finally, when shit was hitting the fan, instead of pushing to execute the photo brief and my preconceived lighting idea come together, I should have done what I do best: Stripped it all away and shot natural light, or handheld a single strobe, going for a much simpler approach that allowed me to be intimate with my subject.
I think the final portrait lacks an intense mood because I got lost managing the set instead of being present with my subject, and concentrating on our interaction and on Robert’s expression. In the end, I got the lighting close to what I had planned, but there were a lot of outtakes where the lighting wasn’t dialed in because the sunlight changed the ratio. This had the potential to be a great portrait, but I didn’t get it there.
In stead of giant flags I’ve used large umbrellas with a c stand and boom arm to hold it over the subject. The umbrella takes up very little room when packing for a location shoots. It works really well for single portraits when the sun is blasting. This shoot sounds tough and you have to think on your feet when your subject is sitting there watching you sweat
This is great writing Adam, it gave me the same sense of slight panic that I have experienced before as well. Some useful lessons and whilst the shot isn't terrible, I can see why you would not be happy with it. Enjoyed reading that and thinking about what I would have done in the situation. Perhaps got him to try the t-shirt of your assistant for one!