L’esprit de l’escalier – GPP2014 shootout

What happens when you leave the stage is that you immediately start thinking about things that you should have done differently, things that you should have done and didn’t do, things that you shouldn’t have done at all. What also happens is that you’re finally breathing again, so at least you have that going for you, which is nice.

I’m talking about the GPP shootout, for those of you who don’t happen to know what I’m referring to. Follow the link and watch videos from previous years, if you haven’t done so already. I’ll wait.
Done? The basic idea is that each photographer has 20 minutes to shoot, edit and turn in a finished image of an undisclosed subject while a bazillion people watch and judge.
These videos, to be honest, can’t make you feel the palpable tension that permeates the whole auditorium. I was there last year and it was nerve wrecking, but because of that I thought I had a pretty good idea about what it feels to be on the stage. Boy was I wrong.


Let me say something first: the only reason I was on this year’s shootout is because Zack Arias cornered the GPP people on twitter and I am fully aware of this. The shootout is the event that closes the whole week of awesome madness that is GPP, and it has to be a good show for the students, so they usually ask the “big ones” to participate. I was the last addition to the faculty and, honestly, a nobody1.
I still was a nobody who thought the idea of  smack talking on twitter was great, so for the last month Zack and I have been having fun with it.


The thing I’m probably the proudest of is managing to get a little decorated box into his room before he checked in, as a welcome gift (I don’t remember your name, female concierge of the Holiday Inn Express in DKV,  but you’ll always be one of my favorite people).2



For the whole month leading to the shootout I have been extremely nervous, to the point where I started to wake up in the middle of the night for shootout-related nightmares. Each and every night. For a month my brain would randomly try to come up with very intricate light setups, with impressive technical tricks that would have shown people that “I knew what I was doing and I belonged there”. And with people I mean Heisler, McNally, David Alan Harvey, David Hobby and all the other photographers in the room whose work I’ve been admiring for years while trying to figure out the difference between an F-stop and a bus-stop.

I knew that this way of thinking is pointless: I’m not Heisler, probably never will be, and I know that’s ok. The thing is, though, our brains are funny little things and always remind us in how many ways we are never going to be good enough. After a month of worrying, after a whole week of workshops and lack of sleep I was so physically and emotionally exhausted that my brain just gave up and I became somehow resigned to the fact that if I was going to make a fool out of myself in front of people, I would have done so doing what I do, which is not vey polished and not very refined. I’m a weird italian with a camera, so be it.

I don’t remember much about the actual Shootout, I think I went into a state of shock or something like that and switched to autopilot, so I can’t wait to see the video myself.
But before everything is completely wiped from my memory, I thought it could be interesting to guide you through my thought process.

1. The theme

When Hobby announced that for the first year the subject wasn’t going to be a person my heart sank. I’m a people photographer and my forte is interacting with human subjects. I was also scared it would be snakes, because I said something like “As long as it’s not snakes, I’ll be fine” in front of Mohamed and I was afraid he would use the information.
When David told the theme would be “water”, the first thing I thought I could to was to get a woman with long hair into the bath tub they brought on stage and make a beauty portrait. But this was too similar to something I have been doing for the portrait workshop and I thought it would be disappointing to watch. Also, it would have meant asking some poor soul to get soaked without warning, and I didn’t like that.

2. Choosing the subject

Ale had been worried for the whole week that I would have had to take Meghan’s photo and Zack would have had to take his photo. He hates being in front of the camera a little less than he hates to be at the center of attention, so me taking his photo was a bit of a jerk move. BUT.
Honestly, my main concern was the fact that I can take a good portrait, but it takes a while and it’s not a clean process, and the idea of all the bad shots being projected on a huge screen for people to see, made me feel for the poor person who would be in front of my camera.
Ale isn’t vain, doesn’t care about that too much and I was counting on the fact that even if he never lets me take his photo, he would have done his best to help me in this occasion. We are a team. Also, I can be a little rough on the edges because of time restraints and he still knows I love him.

3. Choosing a background

My first instinct was to use the velvet curtains in the auditorium, but I know that my printer prints a bit dark (at this point I had decided I would go with mixed media) and he was wearing a black shirt. I didn’t want to use the white background because I thought it would be a bit flat for what I had in mind.
So I decided to take one of the big plastic sheets I always carry in my bag (with gaffer tape and zip ties, it is my favorite piece of gear) and placed it on the ground.
I should have spent a couple of minutes adjusting it better, but I couldn’t get off the stage because I was tethered and honestly I wasn’t even thinking straight.
I was extremely thankful when my assistant Dawn jumped in to help with that and with the lights.
I didn’t even know at what power the flash attached to the soft box was, I just know that my camera setting were at 1/125 f6.3 ISO 160, which is almost always my starting point.
WAY underexposed.


Funny thing: at this point I completely forgot how to take photos. I could see the knobs in my camera, but I didn’t know what they were meant to do.
So I turned the aperture, in the wrong direction. F8. I was totally choking.
Several people told me about how calm I looked, but I honestly thought that several minutes went by while I was unable to move and trying to access the information I needed in my memory. I was told I actually acted on this right away, which sounds so weird. From this point on I was under the impression I had lost a lot of time and needed to rush.


What’s even worse is that the projector was  darker, so the photos were turning out black.
Oh, perfect. I mentally slapped myself a couple of times, tried to forget about Heisler’s face (“what the hell is she trying to do?”) and adjusted my setting so that the photo would be on the verge of overexposure but not overexposed and would look ok on screen



4. Choosing a story

Now I was trying to think of a way to make my idea work: in theory I could even use this photo for what I had in mind (well, more of a better version of this photo), but there would be no story behind the mixed media technique. It would be an headshot with a random texture on top and to me that doesn’t make much sense.
So I decided I wanted to make it look like someone was holding his head under water. I asked Ale to choke himself and I knew I had married the right man, when he just did, no questions asked.
If you look at the color of his face and his eyes, you’ll see his actually not pretending.



but it still doesn’t look the way I felt it should, so I asked him to try and roll his eyes back so I would see the white. This is the shot I decided to use and asked Ale to print on my little Canon CP800.



Again, I wish I would have spent a little more time on the photo and explored variations. I also would have liked a completely black shirt rather than the one he was wearing, or I would have photoshopped the words away.

5. The water part

I looked around to see if there was a small container available, but there was just a bucket (way too deep and dark to control light properly) and the bath tub (too much water needed), so I got a trash bag from my stash and used my scarf to create some kind of edge to contain the water. I taped the print to the bottom and covered it in water completely.
Shooting with a soft box from above would have killed the texture, so I asked to get rid of the stand and place it on the ground, next to my little white bag. Out of nowhere Rafael Concepcion showed up to help and I felt so grateful about it. I wasn’t alone struggling in front of people, this was a 4 people team effort.

Test shot. I decided to change my settings to monochrome because I wanted the photo to be in black and white. Let me also rotate the images, so you see what I was trying to do.



I looked at the bubbles on the plastic in the back of my camera, and knew I was ok. Then I asked Ale to use the cap of my deodorant to pour water on his own mouth.
I decided to crop away the writing on the t-shirt because it was being a bit too literal for my taste


I took 6 other shots (3 with water, 3 with ink) before realizing that I was starting to shift away from my idea and into something different, so I stopped. My final image is the first I took with the bubbles.



Thinking about it know, I think it’s more a self portrait of how I was feeling than a portrait. I could have done something so much prettier using one of the many beautiful women I had around me, something that would look like a mermaid rather than an image that will definitely be used against me in a court of law if my husband ever goes missing. Oh well. At least I was done with it and could breathe again.
With a new respect for everyone who had been standing on that stage before me. And most of all I could now watch Zack dealing with his 20 minutes and enjoy the show.

I’m not sure it will the video will do him justice, I’m not even sure most of the people in the room got what he did completely, but I became very emotional during his shoot.
After spending a week around him and Meghan, after spending many nights talking about the struggles of making the best of a creative profession while also balancing a family, after realizing how important they are for each other, I loved how he managed to turn his showmanship into an intimate moment in a handful of minutes, celebrating the amazing woman who stands by his side. But what I love the most is that since she was taken by surprise and asked to play the piano while he was putting together the whole piece, she probably ended up not being able to hear a single word and she’ll have to wait for the video to come out.

Classic Zack.

GPP2014 Dubai

Photo by A Vahanvaty

  • 1. I'm not saying I am worth nothing: I know who I am and my mum does as well, but on an international pond I'm the littlest fish. What I'm trying to say is that from a marketing perspective it didn't make much sense to involve me in this, and Zack made it possible for me to be there. It was an act of extreme generosity masked as an act of making fun of me in public. Or at least I like this version of the story better.
  • 2. This is an actual proverb from the area I'm from. It translates to something like "it's gonna be like hitting a kid who's taking a shit" and it refers to being cruel to someone who's weak and in a vulnerable position. We are fancy people.
About the author
I take pictures, I sleep too little.
22 Responses
  • Rand on March 16, 2014

    Amazing:) it was so inspirational watching you work…plus you were hilarious

  • Andito Wasi on March 16, 2014

    Love it! The smack talking part was hilarious. I can’t wait for the shootout video to come out.

  • Andrea on March 16, 2014

    Chapeau Master!

  • fabio on March 16, 2014

    You’re both a great photographer and person. Modesty is a rare gift and I’m so proud to know you in person :)

  • craig on March 17, 2014

    As soon as you had your husband choke himself I knew exactly how the portrait was being portrayed. The indicator of your own emotions was the lead up of “dreams/nightmares” about the shoot out, i realised then this was your own emotions conveyed through your husband.

    I`ve not seen the video yet (I left before the shoot out) , it was a pleasure to make you and your husbands acquaintance briefly. I was the tattooed, bald headed english man of portly build stood chatting to Zack and Meg Thursday night outside the hotel . Hope you return next year…..Cheers!

  • Emiko on March 17, 2014

    You never cease to amaze me. Sei stupenda! x

  • Phil on March 17, 2014

    You looked like you were in complete control the whole time. What was strange was everyone was worried about time until they said “10 minutes” and then we all knew you had it made. With five minutes to spare, no less.

  • Jeremy on March 26, 2014

    I had to reread this now that the video is out, and I have to say I’m still trying to process everything given to me from that week from the knowledge to the friendships to the encouragement, it was all too much for me to handle.

    I knew Alessandro was all-in when his face changed from “photo-face” to “I-actually-can’t-breathe-face,” and you guys make a great team. I wish I had something more substantive to say, but I’m not easily intimidated usually, but my mind seems to go blank around you so, I guess I’ll just say, thanks for everything.

  • Christina De Melo on March 26, 2014

    This was amazing work! You should be proud of what you came up with on the spot. Thank you for taking the time to share your mental process in the creation of this very interesting image. I would have been completely convinced he was really underwater if you hadn’t shown the entire creation process.

  • Brendan on March 27, 2014

    I live in Dubai and have been in the audience for every GPP Shootout. Some have been funny, some entertaining, some educational, all in various mixes.

    This year’s was the best by a fair margin as it had all 3 of these elements in spades. It also had emotion….the first one where men & women in the audience were crying, laughing, clapping & shaking their heads in perplexity & then wonder.

    You definitely deserved your place in the spotlight up there on that lonely stage, Sara. You also deserved your win. And I don’t say that lightly as Zack is a friend & I was Team Arias all the way right up until you posted your pic on the screen. It was a great idea well done under a shedload of pressure.

    And Zack……what can I say…..he touched the heart of everyone…..more than photographers can relate to his story. A man of reckoning & inspiration. I’m sure he & Meghan will make entertaining house guests :-)

    Hope to see you back at GPP next year….you’ve earned your place amongst Arias, Hobby, McNally, Heisler, Harvey, Lane, Nightingale, et al.

    Thank you.


  • Thiago Medeiros on March 27, 2014

    Sara, I thought your shot was amazing. I remember following you since the early ’00s on Fotolog (vivid memories of a picture you posted with many things scribbled on your hands, when you had finished a thesis or something), and it’s amazing to see how your work keep getting awesomer. I’ve been inspired by you throughout all these years.

    Keep up with the great work, and if you guys ever find yourselves down here in Brazil, please drop by for some caipirinhas!

  • Brett Patching on March 27, 2014

    I just saw the video of the shootout, and then found your blog post. Thanks for sharing what you were feeling up to and under the event! Obviously the video can only provide a little glimpse of what happened, but your photograph was really smart – a great idea – and you were so charming and entertaining.

  • Name on April 1, 2014

    Thanks for your honesty after a great performance.
    It gives the little ones, who are ‘nothing’ a bit of hope!

  • bimal nair on April 2, 2014

    You are such a fab Sara! Even after reading the entire post, i cant believe your words. The video that David shared made me go awestruck on your confidence, composure & cheer with which you carried out that marvelous shot. You were outstanding Sara! RESPECT!!!
    I wish the best of all worlds and a ton of love for everything you are & do!
    Cheers from India! :)

  • Antony Pratap on April 7, 2014

    That was a fantastic concept, Sara. I can’t wait to try that out.. but what makes me wonder is how do you think so much to make such images. Nevertheless, brilliant idea :)

  • Photography Directory on April 7, 2014

    We would love to have this as an inspiration on our website.


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