I've worked on three documentary projects involving dozens and dozens of portraits. It is EXTREMELY rewarding.
In my experience, few people like to have their portrait taken so a lot of the challenge of portrait projects is to make folks feel comfortable. I am not a naturally warm or outgoing person but my people skills developed incredibly. When I started, I really dreaded going up to people to ask to take their picture. Now I dive right into it with genuine pleasure. So if you feel intimidated by working with people, just be brave and dive in. Smile, shake hands, act like you are enjoying yourself. Take your time and don't be in a hurry with each person. By forcing myself not to hurry, I also minimized my technical mistakes, which I tend to commit when I get nervous.
Don't spend all your time behind the camera. On one project I walked around for two days introducing myself to people and talking to them before the actual portrait sessions. I carried a camera but did not take any pictures. That way people knew me as "the camera guy" but I could engage them personally. It made the actual shoot much more fun and relaxed.
Good luck! In my opinion any chance to shoot people and tell their story is valuable.
If you ever get a chance, legitimately, to document the plant itself as well, do it, and then pair it with the portraits.
Consider seeing if you can get permission to take photos at the gate a few weeks before the place closes. Look in the little bars that usually are around such a place, as well.
Then go back a year later and shoot them again; over half of the bars will likey be closed up.
I lucked into such a project many years ago.
My dad managed manufactiring production a place that made gear for mining and pulp and paper and sewer treatment facilities. At one time over 600 employees. He would go in on Saturdays when the factory was shut down to work on reports, and I would be allowed to photgraph the facility.
Sadly I was only into 35mm gear at the time, and a larger format would have expressed some images much better. Once I as allowed in to the foundry while they were pouring, and came away with great images of that outing.
That was now 25years ago. The plant is a smaller opertion. It is managed by a childhood friend. I should probably try to get back there again.
Without knowing your situation, this is a short in dark but....
I think you have a worthwhile cause to start the project. But I'm not sure about the choice of equipment. With so many subjects and the scale, the cost of just purchasing the film will be enormous. On top of it, all the chemicals and time involved can be overwhelming. To me, it sounds as if medium format or even 35mm would be sufficient or even preferable for bulk of the shots. You could use LF when needed, but using it for all shots may be unnecessary.
It would be sad to start something like this and not being able to finish it because of financial or time constraints, or because technical aspect of the project became overwhelming.
Just my thoughts....
With all due respect, I think figuring out the story, then going about illustrating it leads to boring pictures. I like most of the advice given in Joe's post, but getting to specific too early may keep you from finding other avenues to pursue. There is something to be said for working intuitively, and finding the stories as you go.
Originally Posted by Joe Lipka
I'll add my Just do it" to the chorus. Just think how you'd feel in 10 years time if you never even started.
Do some research into projects of this type, portraits etc so you can see what over people have done and in what style.
As you said, start off with your close family and friends, then print these up and review the images, if you don't like them then as it's family I'm sure they won't mind sitting again as you refine your style. Also, it gives you something to show to other people as you widen your net of subjects. Showing people what you've done will help them to understand what you are doing and perhaps open a few more doors.
Best of luck it sounds a great project. I'm sure you'll do it justice.
What a great opportunity to help others tell their stories, to do something meaning full, and to learn an incredible amount.
I think you're onto something good: start out small, and let grow from there. Use a camera that you are familiar with and a simple setup if you are going to have lights or flash stuff. One lens, one film you like. What's interesting is the people sitting in front of you, not the equipment inventory. :)
Go for it. It'll be rewarding.
I'll second the comments about shooting more than portraits. Although the portraits and interview information will be important in themselves, you should shoot in/around the plant environment (before and after) also. This way you will have a complete body of work relative to this bit of history and can use it in multiple approaches. Once it's gone, you can't go back. Someone suggested using 35mm for everything other than the portraits; this is a good idea, as it will be much easier to handle. While I think that using LF for the portraits is a great idea, I would use whatever equipment works best for the rest of the project, so that it gets done (even, heaven forbid, digital).
Good luck with this. It's an important thing to do and, who knows, you might get a book out of it.
I thought about it last night and here is what I'm thinking:
4x5 is going to be limited to formal portraiture. I have the Speed Graphic, but I do not have an appropriate lens, really, for the type of candid handheld photography that I really want to do. If I can find one I'll start using it for outside shots. If I can't, I'll just use something else.
6x6 is going to be my main format for this. I'm going to use a Mamiya C3 and 3 lenses: a 55mm, an 80mm, and a 180mm. I actually like the idea of square format for this project. The 80mm is probably going to be my most used lens. Printing to 8x8 would be nice.
35mm is going to be my backup for when I just can't get enough light. I'm thinking of seeing if Adam, the husband, would let me pick up a lens I've been coveting for quite some time: the 50mm f/1.2 AIS. If I'm going to use it as a low-light camera, my as well go as low as possible.
My main reason? These are strong, hard-working people. They deserve far better than to be out of work for any amount of time. The ones, like my dad, who have been there for so long, deserve so much more. I do believe that they will at least get a good severance package when the plant does finally close, but even that I'm not sure of. I want to portray the people as they are now...unsure of the future, but for the most part still able to enjoy their lives. I think I most want to tell the stories of the older workers and the workers with families; those who are a few years from retirement and those who have little mouths to feed.
I think, ultimately, I want to help these people. I don't know how yet. I know how incredibly lucky we are that Adam found a job so quickly after he'd been laid off; it was only a little over three months. Being pregnant at the time, though, and pretty heavy with child when he found his new job, I felt very...apprehensive. I know what these people are going through and I really want to do something about this. Maybe put together a book and have all the profits go to help if people need it.
It's still just a concept. I think that this entire town has a story because of this. Maybe I should broaden my scope a bit and actually take as many photos and get as many stories as I can, and then choose the best way to compile it when I'm finished.
Maybe Michael Moore can give you some hints ;)