Daily Show photographer Sean Gallagher opens up about life in show business

We’ve all wondered what we would see behind the curtains of a TV show. There is a combination of mystery and fascination with what goes on behind the scenes, and the process that takes place until the show is presented to us. The Daily Show is one of those shows. The American late-night satire programme is presented by Trevor Noah, who replaced Jon Stewart in 2015.

Sean Gallagher, set photographer of The Daily Show gives us a little insight into the world of The Daily Show through his camera lens. His Instagram page is filled with behind the scenes photos of the show. Trevor Noah chugging down water, last minute make up touches, Hasan Minhaj fixing his tie quickly before rehearsal, and a lot more. He’s been working on the show just over six years, and has been snapping shots behind the scenes and photographing guests in his studio for a series of portraits of those who make it onto the show.

Gallagher received a Bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Massachusetts, initially wanting to be a writer. Now 44, the Brooklyn based photographer has been shooting for over 20 years. In an interview with thecity.ie, he tells us more about his journey with photography.

How did you get into photography?

My mother took a photography course when I was young. I thought it was magic and was absolutely entranced by the camera, which was a fully manual Olympus. I had never seen anything like it. In high school I had some friends who took photography, but I had a full schedule of classes and couldn’t fit it in. Then I went to university thinking I would be a writer. After finishing there and back home in NYC, a friend of mine took a photo class, asked if I wanted to go with her, and I jumped at the chance. That was over twenty years ago and I’ve been shooting pretty consistently since.

What’s it like being a photographer on a show compared to in a studio?

It’s very, very different! In a photo studio, it’s generally just me, or myself and an assistant. Maybe someone whose portrait I’m doing, plus perhaps their friends on a rare occasion. The setup is mine, I know where everything is, and I can be anywhere I want. Everything that’s there is intentional. I have a goal in mind, a particular shot or shots in mind, and I spend the time accomplishing those shots.

At the show there’s an audience, the talent, the crew … people everywhere. I have to make sure I’m out of everyone’s way, not in any camera shots. The show is of paramount importance, and whether I can do my thing is incidental. I’m shooting in more of a documentary style, just trying to capture what I can about what’s happening with the show, the people, what life behind the scenes is like. Then, during rehearsal and the show, I’m trying to capture things that might be useful … expressions, use of props, good angles, moments that wouldn’t make it to the show or standout moments that did. As compared to my studio, I have little control over the look or location and no control over the content. My choices are limited to how I can tell a story while being constrained by the television show that’s going on. It all adds up to a daily challenge and it’s very fun. Trying at times, but always fun.

Do you think being a photographer today is harder than decades ago, for example, or is there no difference?

I definitely think it’s harder to make a living as a photographer now than it’s ever been – an SLR camera used to be a bulky, specialised instrument that was not all that common and kind of difficult to master. Film was hard to work with and expensive, so experimentation cost money.

Now, almost everyone has access to an excellent camera and most even carry one in their pocket almost everywhere they go. They can take thousands of shots for free. It’s simple to fix errors, or to layer on effects that used to only be available via chemistry or Photoshop, which took some time investment to learn.

And while the internet is amazing – it can be the biggest photography school you could possibly imagine – and it might at first blush seem like it holds endless promise as far as having an audience as large as the world, it’s hard to find a way to stand out from that giant, endless crowd of people. Social media is a lot of work. The hustle of it all is a lot of work. The business of photography is secretly the hardest part. It’s not hard to teach anyone to take nice enough photos to sell, it’s a lot harder to teach people that the bulk of the work of photography is business, not being creative.

How did you start working on The Daily Show?

I was working in lighting on a soap opera called “One Life to Live,” which was in the midst of fading out before it was cancelled. The writing was on the wall, despite what the producers were telling us. I had friends there who had worked on The Daily Show for years. I started out subbing for them when they took time off and then worked my way in when they transitioned out, and eventually I was hired on. Then when Trevor started, there was much more of a concentration on the web and all the ways the show could use it.

What’s your favourite thing about The Daily Show?

It’s tough to find just one thing! I think primarily the people are pretty great. Show business is rough, and rude, with all kinds of attitudes and personalities. While no place is immune, The Daily Show is far and away the best show on which I’ve worked in this regard. The feeling there is we have to see each other as much as – if not more – than we see our families, so we might as well try to make the building a pleasant place to be. For the most part, it is. There are dogs running around, there’s a lot of joking in the hallways, people are curious, kind and supportive about what each other are working on. It’s very homey.

What do you love about lighting and photography?

I really love the whole thing, from conception – whether it’s because I’m bored on the train trying to think of something new and fun to do or lying awake at night and something comes to me – to gathering together the elements I need, to the set-up to the lighting all the way through to retouching and then watching people react when I start to show it around. It’s always been thrilling, for twenty or so years, and I hope it always will be. I’m even learning to love the business end of it as I mentioned earlier.

What are the main struggles of photographers in show business from your experience? And how did you overcome them?

My experience doing photography in show business is pretty limited to my own story, and I think my own particular journey has been a little unique. I’m not sure if I have any good answers.

I will say this, and this advice is pretty typical for most gigs “behind the scenes” in show business: show up early, have a good attitude about everything, always have the tools you might need and don’t hesitate to pitch in. People will always notice the person who spent the whole day bitching and moaning and who needed to be asked three times to do their bit. Likewise, they’ll remember the person who did the worst jobs with a smile. And there are a ton of bad jobs in show business.

For photographers specifically, learn to be quiet, respectful and flexible. And always be nice to the lighting guys.

What’s your key advice for the photographers out there?

Just keep shooting, and learn how to be your own harshest critic. Don’t worry about your look, learn to use the camera and how to make a good, correct exposure. Learn how to colour correct. Don’t kid yourself into working your shortcomings into your “style.” Learn what you need to learn and then you can make something [look] funky … later on.

You can see more of Sean Gallagher’s photos on Instagram at: ruminasean

By Hajar Akl

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