How You Dress Matters
August 25th, 2016 by David LaBelle
Hanging with college students in a park setting allows for casual dress, but sometimes the venue calls for a coat and tie.

Hanging with college students in a park setting allows for casual dress, but sometimes the venue calls for a coat and tie.

It is important to dress for success. Most of us have heard this since our early years.

Without delving into the psychology of “the clothes make the person,” how you dress might be the difference between making a memorable picture and being denied access to record emotion-filled moments. Getting in position to make a storytelling photograph is more than half the equation for success.

Bill Allard, a celebrated National Geographic photographer, tells of an internship assignment that took him to photograph the Amish. After his first attempt was unsuccessful, Allard left, bought a pair of overalls, boots and a hat—dressed for the occasion—and returned. The rest is history. It was the beginning of a friendship with a family Allard has followed for 40 years.

Another photographer, Dan Dry, was sent to photograph a rock concert. When he showed up dressed casually, like a concert-goer, he was denied access. Dry went home, changed into a suit and returned. He told the people at the gate something like, “Look at me. Do I look like I want to be here?” They let him in.

Sometimes it serves you best to blend in, and not call attention to yourself. Other times, being seen as different and noticed is important.

Either way, your dress can be an important ingredient in the recipe of your success.

A biblical quote, attributed to the apostle Paul, says, “I became all things to all men that I might save some.” He is speaking about modesty, dress and respect for custom and culture.

The principle of modesty—respecting another’s custom and culture, with the hope of assimilating and not offending rather than imposing one’s liberty to act or dress any way we feel—is a good lesson for photographers.

Immodesty comes in different packages. Too much gear, inappropriate dress such as revealing clothing, the way you move—aggressively or intentionally calling attention to yourself—can ruin any chance for authentic, intimate or even sacred moments.

Sometimes, less gear—a cellphone camera instead of intimidating-looking DSLR cameras—is in order.

Overshooting is another way we can become immodest and draw unwanted attention. It can be like fingernails on a chalkboard in sensitive situations, and might lead to being shown the nearest exit.

The goal is not to frighten or impress people with your gear, but to blend in and not offend.

Sensitivity and modesty also require observation and respect for the environment in which you are working.

While photographing at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, I removed my baseball cap, in what I thought was a gesture of respect. Immediately, I was approached and asked to cover my head.

Growing up, good manners suggested removal of a hat upon entering a house or a restaurant. Though I am familiar with some Jewish customs and teachings, my upbringing temporarily dulled my good judgment.

Dressing for a rodeo is different than dressing for the Oscars or to meet a president or dignitary.
Obvious occasions call for respectful dress.

Covering a funeral takes the utmost in respect and sensitivity, both in choice of clothing and behavior.

Sadly, there are many who couldn’t care less if they offend others. It is always about them, and being a photographer is merely food for the ego.

To be successful in creating meaningful, intimate photographs, we must, in the words of Dorothea Lange, lose ourselves. We have to allow our subjects to take center stage while we blend into the background, much like the technical crew at a performance.

Often, this begins with how we dress.

daveL_mug_2011David LaBelle is an internationally known photographer, teacher, author and lecturer. He has worked for newspapers and magazines across the United States and taught at three universities. He applies many of the lessons he learned during his magical boyhood years in rural California to photography. For more information, visit