Last month I swapped the winter rain of the South of France for the less seasonal rain of England on a corporate photography commission. My clients, leading UK insurance providers, were re-designing their brand and wanted to put their own employees at the heart of a new marketing campaign. They chose me as the photographer to take over 60 portraits of their insurance personnel. The intro to the brief was deceptively simple: “we want portraits that capture our lovely employees at their natural best.”
Insurance is fun – yet also quite serious
Endsleigh Insurance is known in the UK as the number 1 insurance company for students, and has a fun, friendly image. However, as student insurance is not all that Endsleigh does, the professionalism that the portraits needed to convey was as important as showing how fun and approachable Endsleigh representatives are. The individual character of each employee was to shine through too – if ‘Pete’ is not a smiley chap, then he shouldn’t be grinning in his (friendly, approachable) portrait.
All credit to Endsleigh for going all the way and volunteering real staff members who actually do what they say they do. However, unless you are a professional model, being asked to sit for 30 minutes under bright lights opposite a photographer you don’t know, who wants you to ‘be yourself’, and yet at the same time represent the professional face of motor insurance (all the while keeping your chin forward), doesn’t necessarily make you feel fun, competent or natural.
Instead of ferrying the employees to a photographic studio, adding to their stress (and time spent away from the real business of selling insurance), we set up a space for the photography in a large meeting room at the company’s head office.
I hired the lighting and backdrops from a UK company (lugging it all from Nice wouldn’t have been straightforward) and unfortunately a nasty surprise awaited me when I unpacked the cases. The bulb on one of the flash heads was cracked, and two of the flash modifiers I had specifically requested had been exchanged for another kind. While tempted, I shall rise above finger-pointing and won’t name the reputed Pro photographer’s central London-based hire centre. Being a photographer who works on location, I am used to things rarely working out as planned and so had a contingency flash in hand. Endsleigh’s fabulous Facilities Manager showed himself to be very handy too with gaffer tape and some foam board that he dug out, in order to create some artisanal light modifiers.
Worms on toast
I began each portrait session, camera down, with a chat. Among other reasons, it was important for me to learn what the sitter actually did for customers, to set the right tone for a portrait that would represent their part of the business. Then, once we started the photography, I made cunning use of mood cards.
‘Mood’ is a conservative way of describing the panoply of words that I came up with the day before in a brainstorming with friends (a sleep-deprived mother and her two year-old daughter). Rachel and Patrick, who helped me during the shoots, did a valiant job of sitting just under my frame to pick cards and show each sitter the words, one by one. On my count of three, the sitter was to mime the word towards the camera for me to guess what it was. Some were easier than others: ‘mythological’ and ‘worms on toast’ were only shown to the most unflappable candidates. Unexpectedly, yet on reflection perhaps not so surprising for insurance agents, it was the word ‘reassuring’ that seemed to fox most people.
In any case, while hidden talents in amateur dramatics came to the fore for some, my game was more an elaborate ice-breaker than an intention to have photographs of ‘triumphant’ or ‘regal’ employees. Reading the card encouraged each sitter to automatically lean into a more flattering posture, post-mime expressions were genuine, and by the time I asked a subject to sit still, stop miming and just look my way, nerves and stiffness had given way to shoulder-dropping relief.
Food for thought
During the course of the days, I learned more about insurance than I ever thought possible. Thanks particularly to Elaine for adeptly working me into a cold sweat about my lack of life insurance (though I’m happy to say that I didn’t sign up and the fear wore off fast).
An unexpected bonus was Endsleigh’s admirable canteen. At lunchtime and on breaks, I chomped my way through many fine English dishes that don’t appear à la carte in the South of France. Photographers have appetites, and Yorshire puddings, flapjacks and fish ‘n’ chips went some way to giving me the energy required to breathe life into each portrait session.
They also gave me a good reason to go for a big run in the hills when I got back to Nice…