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Behind the Headlines: Alex Kormann on creating a front-page photo illustration

The new University alcohol policy, effective Aug. 1, emphasizes education and health over discipline and lays out treatment options for students and faculty.

The new University alcohol policy, effective Aug. 1, emphasizes education and health over discipline and lays out treatment options for students and faculty.

In the inaugural installment of Behind the Headlines, Photo Editor Alex Kormann takes us behind the scenes of yesterday's front-page photo illustration.

As with most things in life, the key to a successful photograph is patience (and photography is about the only thing I have patience with). 

Unfortunately, the photo illustration on the front page of yesterday’s paper was not done by going outside and taking a single shot. 

I started by researching how other photographers have approached the subject of alcohol in the past. The goal was to find some inspiration through images that spoke to me on an emotional and artistic level. By the time I finished, I had started to form a vision of how I wanted the image to turn out. I knew I was going to focus on the mood, lighting and location.

In my case, I knew I wanted the mood to be somber and gloomy to illustrate how alcoholism can bring people to a dark place. To go along with this, I knew that the lighting had to be dim and the location had to convey a lonely feeling.

I began to scope out some different places where there would be soft and diffused low light. That means where the light is not strong or direct, but instead fills the room and creates a very calm and quiet mood. I thought that the conference room of the Daily Tar Heel office would be a perfect location. 

I waited for the “golden hour,” when the sun is low in the sky, to begin shooting. At this point, I had about four hours until deadline, so I didn’t have time to be picky with who was going to model for me. In fact, I chose the model I did because he was sitting near me while I was searching for inspiration online and I felt he (very conveniently) fit into my concept of an average college student pretty well.

My model was dressed in preppy clothing, something that I've noticed UNC students often wear. It was a way to make a connection visually.

Before I shot a single picture of him, I asked other people around the office to help me test out my ideas by posing for some photos. I asked a friend, who could buy alcohol legally, to bring me an empty beer bottle for the shoot. Shooting with my own equipment, Canon 7D Mark II body and Sigma 24-70mm f/2.8 lens, I experimented with different poses for the models, placement of the beer bottle and with wider and tighter shots. This, unsurprisingly, came with a lot of goofs and laughs (including some glorious crotch shots). A lot of people are afraid to try strange ideas they come up with, but I find that those are often the best ones. 

The best part about photography is that no one ever has to see the shots you don’t like. No photo is ever a failure. Every shot is a step closer to achieving your vision.

Yesterday, after a few hundred shots, I was still not satisfied with any of the images. As I was walking back from dinner I passed by a dumpster in the parking lot and the street lamp above it flickered on. That moment sparked the idea that would eventually become the front-page photo. You know the story about when that apple fell on Newton’s head and he invented gravity? It was like that, but with garbage.

I imagined a person slumped over (likely drunk or hungover), leaning up against a dumpster with only a dim street lamp lighting them. My only worry was that waiting for nightfall is risky, so my idea had to work or else the whole front page would be compromised. 

I trusted in my experience and my creativity, so I decided to wait for the sun to set. In the meantime, I went back through my earlier shots and picked out aspects from individual photos that I thought might work well together. Around 8:30 p.m. I brought my model outside to the dumpster and explained the pose I had in mind and made manual adjustments as needed. Enduring the noxious odors seeping through the garbage bags, I shot a few dozen more photos. 

The time came that made everything else worth it; after hours of planning, experimenting, shooting and reshooting, my vision had finally come together into the front-page photo.

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