Photographer's blog: Strip club visit (It's a POLITICAL assignment)

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“No Honey, really, it’s a POLITICAL assignment related to the upcoming RNC.” I could see a familiar smirk slide into place on my wife’s face as I explained exactly where, and what, I’d be shooting later that evening.

As a photojournalist based in Tampa, Florida, one of the most important political battleground areas of, arguably, the most important political battleground state in national politics, my wife has become accustomed to being an “election-season widow” for long stretches at a time as I cover the myriad of predictable bus tours, stump speeches, rallies, and debates that crop up in my coverage area. Strip clubs however... well that was a first for both of us.

With the Republican National Convention coming to Tampa, a city somewhat notorious for, or at least noted for, it’s strip clubs, there was a story to tell about the clubs’ anticipated surge in attendance during the week of the convention. This was a legitimate politics story and I was just the man to shoot it. Exactly how I would shoot it, well, that was another story all together.

The first step was securing permission to shoot inside the most famous all-nude club in Tampa, the Mons Venus. I anticipated this would take weeks of negotiating access, involving legal departments, notarized waivers, and hovering minders. But in reality all it took was a quick two-minute phone call to the club’s owner, Tampa legend Joe Redner, whose advice to me, upon learning that I was shooting for Reuters, was simple: “Sure, shoot whatever you want; I don’t care if you show full nudity. Just try to avoid showing the faces of my customers.”

That evening, after securing permission directly from the club’s owner to photograph inside, I couldn’t help but feel a little apprehensive, maybe even “creepy”, as I approached the club’s front door with cameras hanging off my shoulders. Would getting access really be as easy as Redner had said? Was it just as easy as walking up to the front door and telling them “Joe said it was ok.”? Well, yeah, actually it was that easy. I walked to the front door and the manager essentially told me that she was expecting me and that I had full access to shoot whatever I wanted.

So, I was inside. Now what? Because Reuters’ U.S.-based clients tend to shy away from showing any type of nudity, it was important to capture some images that were tame enough for public consumption yet still showed enough to get the flavor of the place. Showing nudity without actually showing nudity: this was the trick. Oh, and I also needed to remember to avoid showing the faces of the customers too while I was at it. This actually proved to be quite tricky as, at times; there were as many as five or six fully nude women in my camera’s viewfinder at any one time.

I found that it was important to hang around long enough to let the girls, and the customers, get comfortable with the idea of me taking photographs. Most of the girls were quite excited at the idea of being photographed, but a few quietly let me know that they’d prefer to stay out of my lens as their family members didn’t *exactly* know what it was they did for a living. I was happy to honor their requests, but keeping a mental note of who does and who does not mind being photographed proved fairly difficult without identifiable clothing to commit to memory. As far as the act of taking appropriate photographs went, it all came down to shooting wide open at f/1.4 or f/1.8 in order to throw faces on the other side of the stage out-of-focus. I found it helpful to shoot in short bursts of 4 or 5 frames in order to; hopefully, find that one frame that managed to hide all the parts that needed to stay hidden. The shadowy light and slight blur afforded by the necessarily slow shutter speeds also ended up helping to keep the photos tame as well.

In the end it turned out to be a fun little assignment and by the time I left the club I no longer felt “creepy” and was happy to be able to help Reuters tell the story of this unique facet of the upcoming Republican National Convention. Although, I must admit, that “creepy” feeling did surface again when, the following morning, I sat down to edit my images in my favorite coffee shop. A quick look over my shoulder and... “It’s a POLITICAL assignment...”