Connecting with your Audience

Disclaimer: I am a diehard U2 fan and have been since the age of nine. My experience may not reflect what you would have felt but I’d be willing to bet even someone who isn’t a U2 fan would have felt the concert was an incredible experience.

The above video clip was shot with an iPhone (believe it or not) and gives you a 45 second taste of the light apologies for the rough audio, though it is pretty amazing considering it was recorded on an iPhone.

While watching U2 perform a few nights ago I was completely awestruck by how they can capture an audience and connect with them on a level few rock bands ever have or ever will again. I was in Phoenix, Arizona, along with about 90,000 fellow U2 fans. Their stage was this lunar lander behemoth that rose pretty much to the top of the partially enclosed University of Phoenix stadium. The air was electric. The sound quality was stunning. The songs were anthems, and we were encouraged to participate in the show. In fact, I hesitate to call it a show, it wasn’t. It was an event. And Bono used every bit of his passion and fervor to include us in the mix. The songs were used to inspire and prod. It was clear that the music was bigger than just the lyrics or the band. By the end of the concert, they managed to create an emotional connection with the audience that left everyone reeling.

As an artist, who uses a camera instead of musical instruments, my mind went to work as they finished out the last encore. How do these guys do it? How do they make such a visceral, intense connection with their audience? The first thing that came to mind was that their songs are firmly connected with their beliefs and passions. It is no secret that three of the band members are Christians and that Bono’s political motivations are to help the poor and needy in Africa and elsewhere. In recent years this has been the outpouring of their faith, and that is reflected in the songs. Hence, every Christian in some way has a connection with the band far beyond the songs. Secondly, passion is infectious. There is no facade with these guys. They come out and play their hearts out for two and half hours and involve the crowd. The passion on display for their causes is real. You can hear it in the songs, in their work. In a sense, the songs serve as anthems because they encourage you to sing along and become an activist in the cause whether it’s about changing your life, coming to God, fighting oppression or poverty or helping to solve the AIDS crisis in Africa. The last part of this connection, that can’t be underestimated is the quality of their work. It is top-notch. And even more to the point, it is consistently top-notch. That can’t be understated. If the work wasn’t good then no one would be there to celebrate it. Put it all together and you have a group that can deliver real and meaningful content, not just entertainment, in a live show.

Obviously it is going to be extremely difficult, nigh impossible, to create such an emotional response with photography. Live music by its nature is a different animal altogether. For a long time now I have been thinking that in this day and age, where the profession of photography is changing at an incredible pace, it might be wise to create a following beyond the clients that hire you for assignments. Of course, the fact that you are reading this article on my blog or in my newsletter goes without saying that I already have a following of some sort and continue to cultivate that audience. Many other pro photographers have done likewise like Chase Jarvis, Joe McNally and Vincent LaForet. They have used their blogs and their work to inspire, teach and inform with incredible success. But is that it? Is it possible to create an emotional connection with a photograph, with a photographer’s work? I’d say yes, it is, but obviously not on par with a U2 concert. For example, look at the incredible images of James Nachtwey, that force one to deal with the atrocities going on around the world. Or look at the images of melting glaciers shot by James Balog and his crew at the Extreme Ice Survey. Those images show us with visual data how fast our climate is changing and hopefully motivate us to change our everyday habits that might be part of the problem.

Looking over my notes on how U2 was able to connect with their fans at that concert, there are some clear cut correlations that can be adapted for the photographer looking to connect with people through their images. First, and this is no surprise, passion reigns supreme. If you are passionate about your photography and what you photograph that will come through. Usually when people are passionate about something they are deeply committed. And this means they understand that topic extremely well - which will lead to very insightful images. Second, your work has to be top-notch. If you can’t communicate effectively with your chosen media then it is harder for the message to get through. Hence, the better the work, the easier it is for others to get excited about it. It is obvious that U2 works really hard on their craft. They don’t just sit around lazily and throw a few songs - or their tours - together. They work at it incredibly hard. If you expect to really connect with the viewer (especially photo editors who have seen it all) then you are going to have to apply yourself by working harder, smarter and longer than the next guy. This is all part of refining and pushing your craft so it can be top-notch. And it all ties into how passionate and driven you are. If you know me personally then you know I am an extremely passionate person who can’t contain himself. My newsletter alone is proof of that.

The hardest part for a photographer to convey through their images is their message - if there is one. As photographers, our voice is our images. What do they say? Do they convey our beliefs? Our Passion? Is that message one that will connect with others? As an adventure photographer, my images aren’t helping anyone avert the AIDS crisis in Africa. But, on a smaller level, I hope that my images of elite athletes help inspire others to take a few risks and get out of their comfort zone, to expand their world view and have an adventure that gives them a new perspective. During the concert, I was inspired to take my work even further by shooting for some NGOs I have worked with and believe in -- and ones that one can use my images to get others motivated and contributing to positive changes in Burma and Thailand specifically. And all of my adventure skills will be needed to create those images. More to come on that at a later date but the ball is already rolling.