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“Risk-taking” isn’t Always so Risky

September 28, 2012

Dog Ear Consultants

After the Denison Magazine art director, Erin Mayes of EmDash, read our story, “Party Faithful,” on Christianity’s role in politics, she told me she wanted to do a photo shoot with Jesus. She knew the perfect guy, a friend of hers, a singer in the church choir. She also knew a nice married couple who could play a politician and his wife. The idea was to put Jesus in two staged shots—one in which Jesus would be pulled along Main Street in a parade and one in which he would be left behind to clean up after a politician’s victory party. Both would show Jesus being used by the church and the politicians to win elections. It made sense after I got over the initial reaction of Jesus doing what?, and I could see a commercial magazine doing it well.

I’d love to say I jumped out of my seat and said, “Yes! Let’s do it! Jesus being pushed around by politicians? Brilliant! It’s what’s happening every day in this election, after all. Let’s be bold enough to say so.” But I got cold feet.

While I was perfectly comfortable taking on the issue in a story, the photographs made me nervous. Talking about Christianity in politics with expert sources was one thing, a smart piece. Having Jesus hang out with a presidential candidate felt too hot, too raw, and way too divisive for an “alumni magazine.” I didn’t know how my bosses would react. And I wasn’t at all sure about how our readership would take it. In most cases, we have the ability to plan content, writing, and design without much input from the higher levels of administration—they trust us to do our jobs, bless them—but this idea felt like it needed to be vetted a bit. When the bosses said, “Go for it,” we did.

We anticipated letters, phone calls, and I have to admit, I braced for impact. In the end, we got a total of four letters. Two loved the story and the photos. Two thought the photos were, well, sacrilegious.

It just goes to show that your readers can take more than you think. They are well-educated folks, no? They like to be challenged and made to think critically about issues. They are reading TIME and New York Magazine and Texas Monthly and The Atlantic, and your magazine has got to compete with those publications for their attention. And a bonus: You’re having lunch with the faculty experts that the writers from TIME and New York and Texas Monthly are calling for interviews.

I’m not saying that we should run out and try to provoke readers with outrageous photographs, illustrations, or stories just to get their attention. But we should be willing to take risks if we know it’s the right approach.

Some might say our art treatment for “Party Faithful,” was too risky for an alumni magazine. I would argue that it was engaging. The subject matter was not taken lightly and the shoot was incredibly well thought out by the staff. We worked to get just the right expression on Jesus’ face–he had to look indifferent; he couldn’t walk side-by-side with a politician, as that would show an interest in the political activity, so he had to be seated and pulled along Main Street; and we asked him to look away from the political couple, a nuance that was not lost on one of our letter-writers.

In the end, we did dish out some money for the photographer, of course, a make-up artist, and a rented mule (worth every dime), but we saved wherever we could throughout the rest of the issue to make this shoot work. The “models” were volunteers (although we did buy them a gift of thanks); the “set” was public property; and the only costume we rented was Jesus’. We just couldn’t seem to find any friends with a tunic that seemed right.

(I should also point out that Dog Ear can’t take a lick of credit for this design — that all goes to EmDash. I just got to say “yes” to their great idea in my day job as editor of Denison Magazine.)

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