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On Assignment: 2012 World Choir Games

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In July, the World Choir Games came to my city. This semi-annual event included 15,000 singers from more than 60 countries. The first games happened in 2000 and have alternated between European and Asian locations until this year when the games came to the U.S. for the first time.

I was part of the 50+ volunteer team that photographed the games. I worked with the coordinator of the team to cover some of the more out-of-the-way or special events. The Games lasted almost two weeks and included four awards ceremonies, countless "friendship" concerts, dozens of competition concerts and several workshop every day.


Taking Cultural Training

All of the more than 4,000 local volunteers for the Games took a training course that covered many things, but I felt the most important part was what some might call cultural sensitivity training. When you go to a foreign country, learning the local ways and traditions is daunting. But imagine learning what is acceptable and what isn't for 60 countries.

Luckily, the German foundation that runs the Games, Interkultur, has amassed some universal things that will keep you out of trouble. The first might seem simple, but don't touch people. Shaking hands, pats on the back, hugs and other forms of contact have very different meanings depending on where you are in the world.

It seems that the opposite is true for smiling. Smiling is the universal human symbol for "I want to be nice to you, please be nice to me." It helped me countless times. So keep that in mind if the Games ever come to an area near you.


Creating your Shooting Strategy

This might be something that is handed down to you from your supervisors or might be something you're creating on your own, but it's very important to have a strategy.

Get maps of all the areas that will be used. Get a schedule for as far out into the future as you can. And most importantly, find someone who can help you. At the Games, there was a press room. Had I been shooting the Games on my own, I would have made it my first stop every morning.

If the first thing you do every morning is plan your day, then it actually doesn't tie you down to a schedule. It allows you to know what's important and what isn't. So if you find something interesting that's not on you list, you know if you have time to shoot it.


Make a Few Friends Early

Envato, the parent company for Phototuts+ and Tuts+ Premium, is based in Australia. That gave me something to talk about when I ran into an Australian choir from Sydney. I knew they were going to be my insiders.

At a big event like the World Choir Games, it's important to realize, that photographers don't come first. The participants do. They're often going to get information way before you do.

Keeping up with the Aussies throughout the games, they gave me that insider perspective. They told me about side trips that different choirs were making together. They told me who the good choirs were, who the Cinderella choirs were. They knew their competition and filled me in. This allows me to look for legacies and upsets.

You don't have to make many connections like these, but it helps to have one or two to give you the view form their side of the event.


Find the Recreation Areas

In Cincinnati, the headquarters of the Games was a big convention center. In the two large showrooms of the center were the cafeteria and the recreation room. This room was a very fun place to take pictures.

Choirs would come together for games and dancing. They would come here to rehearse and just rest. It was a great place to stop in between shooting scheduling events because there were always people there.


Shooting Competitions

Shooting competitions is the hardest part of the Games. You're stuck in the back of the room so you don't distract the choir. They're often lined up on a dimly lit stage. It requires long, fast glass, and a lot of patience.

Luckily, I didn't have to shoot any competitions. But from accounts I hear from other photographers it's good to cover your bases with some shots of the whole choir. After that, you should look for the most animated member of the choir (and most have a few) and try to get a great picture of them

There are some really exciting categories to shoots. This year, show choir was a category. These competitions included dancing and props. Other categories allow drums or other instruments. Occasionally, you'll see these, but for most expect choir on risers.


Covering Other Concerts

The "friendship" concerts are like competitions in that they involve more than one choir, but than one choir, but they are not competitive and more for the crowd than the choir.

At these events, you'll have a lot more freedom to roam around and get close to the choir. You'll also have more opportunities to photograph the crowd reacting the singers.


Workshops

The workshops were a really interesting part of the Games. The coordinators of the Games brought in educators and other notable choir directors to teach people techniques and specific forms of music.

Because the Games were in the U.S., we had presentations on African-American Spirituals, Scared Harp Music, and even children's songs. Many times the presenter had a small choir used for demonstrations, but by the end of the workshop, they whole crowds would join in.

There's just something really fun about seeing three or four choirs from different corners of the globe all singing music that you know and love.


Keep an Eye Out for Special Moments

One day there was a sing-along scheduled for the recreation room. The leader had already presented a workshop earlier in the week about writing and performing children's music.

A small Chinese choir came to attend, but no one else showed up. The leader sang a few songs and tried to get people to join in, but the language gap wasn't helping. Then he tried to crowd them around, and he started a Beatles song. They knew this one, so they all joined it.

Then one of singers pulled out a smart phone and put it up against the microphone. A loud, upbeat Chinese pop song started pumping through the speakers. It was to become a seriously intense Karaoke session. A female in her late teens grabbed a mic a started belting out this tune.

The presenter of this session just went with it. He started dancing with the kids and leading an impromptu conga line to the sound of the music. His hi-jacked sing-along had turned into something very special. The session ended with the group singing "We are the World" by Michael Jackson.


Photographing the Head Honchos

It's important when you're covering an event for the organization putting it on that you keep their needs in mind. The head of Interkultur participated in a lot of the events that took place in the city.

Just keep your eye out for the big wigs when you're shooting. They're basically your bosses and they'll really appreciate having their event documented with them in it.


Keep Video in Mind

Singing is really best documented with audio, not still photos. Luckily, many of our DSLRs are digital video and audio recorders as well as still cameras.

If you get the opportunity, record a song or two. I would not try to make a complete dynamic video of from it. Shooting with one camera means you can't cut away or do any of the other things that make video good. What you can do is record the audio, and put stills from the whole concert over it, making a great audio slideshow.


Finding Rehearsals

At a big event like the World Choir Games, you'll see rehearsals happen everywhere. If you're in a place that isn't supposed to be hosting a concert and you hear music, track it down.

It's really fun to get photos of big choirs in weird places. Rehearsals were held at the Games everywhere. We saw them out on the street, in the main lobby of the convention center, and in hallways. It made for some cool images.


Keep Good Records

For your own sanity and for the sake of those viewing your photos, write down everything. You'll want to know the location where you made your photos and at the very least the nationality of the choirs.

I wouldn't worry too much about names unless you're covering the Games for a newspaper. You'll shoot a lot of photos and keeping all the names that you've never heard or spelled before straight will be hard.

If you plan on selling your photos, this will make it much easier for the choirs to find your work and buy it.


Many Chances, But Not Infinite

If you miss something don't worry. Guess what a singing competition has a lot of? Answer: Singing. There will be more chances to get the shots you want.

However, remember where you are. Chances are this July is the only chance I'll ever have to shoot the World Choir Games. It's a once in a lifetime event. Don't screw up or get lazy. Next year, the games will be in Riga, Latvia. For some reason, I don't see myself randomly ending up there.


Attending the Award Ceremonies

I mostly photographed workshops and the award ceremonies. The award ceremonies are probably one of the top ten most exciting things I've ever shot. It's full of crazy, raw joy and pride.

There are a few things to know if you ever shoot this. First, there are four of these. Two halfway through the games, and two at the end. Each one covers 4-8 categories. These categories might be folk music, sacred music or children's choirs.

In almost every category, there will be two sections: an open competition and a champions competition. The open competition is just that, open to everyone. The champions competition includes choirs who have won some other singing competition before, so it's more elite.

They call the name of every choir so they can receive they're diploma and metal. They go category by category, open and then champion, lowest score to highest score. The part that is the most exciting is when they finally announce the winner of the champions competition.

At that point, the winning choir will run down to the stage out of the crowd. Get their award and sing their National Anthem.

It crazy!


Dealing with the Crowds

At the awards ceremony, there will be tons of photographers. When a big choir wins, the parents and friends of that choir will come down and stand right in front of the choir and take their picture.

This can make it very hard to do your job. First, make the photographer the picture. It makes for a good shot to have people posing for the camera. Or having a proud parent peeking over the top of a camera with tears in their eyes.

Second, move quickly. If you want the first shot of the choir, you need to be in position faster than everyone else. The decorum of these award ceremonies breaks down pretty quickly once the name of a winner is called. Get up, don't worry about blocking people's view of the stage, and get close to the winner's.

Finally, be polite. If you get bumped or stuck behind someone, don't get mad. It's not going to help your situation.


Presenting your Work

During the World Choir Games, all the volunteers and I were continually upload our images to a website called Capture Cincinnati. This is a local photo sharing and competition site that Interkultur partnered with. This site allows participants and fans to both view and buy the images.

When you're covering the next World Choir Games or different large event, it will be important to consider your distribution outlet. Maybe it's a system that's already in place, like Capture Cincinnati. But it could be your own system, like Flickr or a personal site.

It's obviously is important to know how that delivery system works. But it's equally important to adapt your workflow to that system. Maybe it's doing to setup ahead of time in Lightroom or creating a few actions in Photoshop. When you're dealing with a large amount of photos and a quick turnaround, it's essential to have your system worked out.

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