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Filet-O-Fish® and Portrait Photography

Yesterday on our way to pick up some groceries in Port Townsend, we walked past a McDonald’s. In the window was a large poster advertising the Filet-O-Fish® sandwich, two bucks on Fridays. Admittedly, I’m not the target demographic for McDonald's (at all), but I was mesmerized by this photograph.


I said to Kevin “Could that food look ANY more processed!? The plastic bun, the machine-cut square of fish, the crayon-orange cheese, the marshmallow tartar sauce with perfectly placed pickle bits….”


“You know It took a photographer, a huge team of food stylists and art directors (and likely an enormous budget) to make that Filet-O-Fish® photo happen.” 

As an advertisement, this felt like a total fail. I couldn’t imagine a Filet-O-Fish® looking any less appetizing than it did on this poster in the window of its maker. I assumed that the photography/money/art/food styling team would have instead aimed for creating an image depicting…well, something more appealing, organic, delicious, and less processed, plastic, precise.  

On the other hand, as an editorial photo (or art!), this photograph of the Filet-O-Fish® sandwich was PERFECT. The factory-fabricated Filet-O-Fish® in this photo looks exactly like what it is. The photographer had somehow managed to even amplify the synthetic reality of the Filet-O-Fish®. You can almost picture the factory workers in white bunny suits extruding perfectly square fish filets from gleaming stainless steel industrial machinery. 

It’s like when I take a portrait of a cool character with an interesting vibe and I’m able to show a heap of his personality in my zillionth of a second shutter click and subsequent print. This Filet-O-Fish® photograph oozes its processed personality perfectly.  

I decided if I were the photographer, I’d be super proud of getting it “just right.” 

As a professional portrait photographer, my philosophy centers on connecting with my subjects by creating a comfortable, casual environment where they feel open and at ease. I want to listen to their stories and study their mannerisms. I’d rather focus in on capturing a person’s unique characteristics than take a “pretty” or “flattering” photo that has no personality. 

A few years ago I was hired to create a portrait of the (now defrocked) pastor/leader of the Mars Hill Church for the cover of a magazine. We were invited by his PR guy to attend (and photograph) his hour-long sermon before photographing him in the “green room” of his Bellevue, Washington megachurch. The original plan had been to set up in the green room during his first sermon, and then meet for his portrait quickly between his two sermons (my preference, since I was not so keen on the whole megachurch thing), so this was a bit of a departure.

His sermon began (picture spotlights and giant TV screens and a rock band opening act) and we found him to be a very engaging and charismatic speaker, but he preached values that I find highly offensive (misogyny, bigotry, and intolerance), and hearing him encourage this way of thinking so eloquently and persuasively to a stadium full of mostly young people was very disturbing. 

After the sermon we set up in his green room and I felt pretty nervous as we waited for him to arrive. I find it so important to connect with the subjects I photograph, but I felt less than enthusiastic about trying to connect with this one. Turns out he was not a “connect with you” kind of guy anyway, at least not for the 15 minutes I spent with him. He was detached, dismissive, and not engaged at all (perhaps because I was a woman). There were about 20 people in the smallish room (including his whole family) and it was far too crowded and lively for me to do much but try to get the best “surface” shot of him as fast as I could (and by "surface" I mean "good photograph of this guy, but without having the normal photographer/subject rapport that I usually can cultivate during a shoot").

Back in the studio as I was editing down the work, there was one photo that stood out to me. It might not have been the most flattering portrait of him, but it felt by far the most honest. It accurately represented how he “felt” to me in person. He had a bit of a smirk. He was making was eye contact, but there didn’t seem to be any real connection with the viewer. His expression felt kinda like a shrug. This shot was definitely my favorite and felt the most genuine to me, so I submitted it to the magazine’s art director along with the other shots I thought were probably more flattering.  

Guess which photo the magazine put on the cover? The Filet-O-Fish®!