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How Does a Photojournalist Photograph Fire Performers

How Does a Photojournalist Photograph Fire Performers

Q – Hi Adrian! If you could give just one tip on how to photograph fire performers, what would it be?

A – Learn photojournalism and sports photography


What Makes a Compelling Photograph

As photojournalists, we are taught that powerful images revolve around the human element and their struggle within the environment around them. In those images, the human expends energy to overcome an obstacle. Success or failure is is irrelevant — what matters is the emotion captured in that moment. 

So what makes a great photo? Three simple elements:

  1. Effort – A human being struggling.

  2. With Something – A ball, a baby, a partner, an animal, themselves, whatever.

  3. Adversity – An opponent, a sidewalk, rain, Donald Trump, racism, you get the idea.

That’s all.


In the case of a great sports photograph, the most memorable images capture, in an single instant, a three-way marriage of:

  1. The athlete’s EFFORT

  2. With a BALL

  3. To “overcome ADVERSITY.”

How Does a Photojournalist Photograph Fire Performers
2011-03-12 Western Mass Div I High School Basketball Finals at the University of Massachusetts Amherst: Amherst vs Longmeadow

In the example photograph, those elements are demonstrated by the combination of the basketball player taking a shot for Amherst High School, off-balance, while nearly triple-teamed as her teammate and the crowd behind her anxiously watches. The photograph also leaves you with potential unanswered questions:

Does she make the basket or does she miss? (Nailed it)

Did her team win or lose? (They won)

Finally, images from both the winning and losing side(s) help to frame the story. To hijack something the narrator for “Wide World of Sports” once described, the best images capture “…the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.”

Conceptually, there is absolutely no difference in elements when photographing fire-performers in action than when photographing a basketball player. A powerful photograph is created, in an instant, when the performer is caught in a three-way dance combining:

  1. The performer’s EFFORT

  2. with a PROP

  3. in the face of ADVERSITY (of danger, of failure, a photographer getting too close, etc).

How Does a Photojournalist Photograph Fire Performers
Julie Dion in a backbend buzzsaw at the Quincy Quarry, Quincy, MA.

In the case of this photograph, those elements are depicted in the effort it takes for Julie to:

  1. Bend backwards

  2. Spin fire poi

  3. Maintain balance, and composure, while in an unnatural position in the dead of winter.

What are some possible unanswered questions that you could consider as a result of Julie’s photo?

Finally, what about the three-way challenge that exists when a photographer:

  1. Makes EFFORT

  2. With their gear

  3. against ADVERSITY (level of experience, technical limitations, environmental challenges, performers, other people, etc)?

Finally, photojournalists thrive in chaotic environments through a near psychic ability to use their equipment under difficult conditions. Flames don’t ignite, your camera settings are way off, batteries die, lens focusing motors fail, and people get in your way. Shit happens. So what? What matters is nailing the shot.

  • How Does a Photojournalist Photograph Fire Performers
  • How Does a Photojournalist Photograph Fire Performers
  • How Does a Photojournalist Photograph Fire Performers

Here’s some questions to think about before your next photography event: How quickly can you adjust settings without looking away from the viewfinder? How many batteries do you have charged and ready to go? Do you know where they are? If, for some incredibly irresponsible reason, you decided to partake in intoxicants at a weekend festival, could you still use your camera through sheer muscle memory?

Have ever heard of the concept of “Safety Third?” Embracing it can separate you from the rest of the photographers hovering around the fire performer‘s circle.

Bravo Six

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Adrian Feliciano is a graduate of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, holds a B.A. in English, is a US Army veteran, and is Boston's most imperfect photographer. He makes a damned good Filipino adobo, too.

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