During COVID: Gene Smirnov Gets the Small Business Owner Perspective for The Wall Street Journal

May 21, 2020
Photographer Spotlight

As COVID-19 has interrupted daily life, people from every profession have had to figure out ways to be productive — and photographers are no exception. Each week, we'll share stories from our members about how they're staying mentally and technically sharp during the pandemic.

The last few months have been a nightmarish period for small businesses across the country, many of which are unsure if they’ll see the other side of this pandemic. Even places that are allowed to stay open are seeing, for a number of obvious reasons, a decrease in customers. One of the hardest hit sectors of the economy is the auto industry. People aren’t driving that much these days, which makes it tough for small business owners in the field to maintain cash flow. Gene Smirnov recently met one of those owners while on assignment for the Wall Street Journal.

Gene Smirnov WSJ online tear from article

I was assigned to take portraits of Tom Bemiller, CEO of Aureus Autobody, as well as the mechanics. Even when the shop offers to pick up your car for maintenance and drop it off when it's done, customers are still reluctant to hire them.

Though this work was done in March when Americans weren’t quite as proactive in terms of safety as they are now, Gene — and WSJ — made sure he was prepared for the job.

Michael Bucher, a photo editor from WSJ, made sure I was prepared to execute assignment safely with N95 mask, gloves, and sanitizer.

Gene Smirnov WSJ Gene comes prepared

When I did the shoot at the end of March, people still didn't know how to navigate working with others in person as there were mixed opinions on the severity of the situation. Some people would take it too seriously and some not seriously enough. Going for a middle ground and being respectful of each other space was of upmost importance. 

One of the benefits of this assignment was that it allowed Gene to head to a less-populated area than his hometown of Philly. As opposed to shooting imagery in a crowded urban environment, he ventured north of his residence about 40 miles.

When I got the initial email, I thought I might be going into the city somewhere and was concerned about being in a busy area. But I was lucky to be sent to the country.

Gene Smirnov WSJ second online tear

The shoot took place in Zieglerville, PA and took less than two hours. I didn't use an assistant for everyone's safety and was pretty hands on with everything.

Despite the hindrance that a mask creates with regards to communication, Gene thinks he got the imagery he was in search of and lauded Tom for the way he interacted with his employees.

Tom Bemiller runs several of the shops in their company and when he showed up to the building, he was very diplomatic and positive in his approach. He went around the shop, talked with each employee, and checked in on their well-being.

Gene Smirnov WSJ Tom and his employee

In spite of the uncertainty of the future of the company, he has made a good impression as he involved everyone in the conversation. Wearing a mask during the shoot somewhat restricted our communication, which in turn made our exchange more 'as is' and honest. I think I've captured Tom exactly the way he felt.

Gene Smirnov WSJ Tom Bemiller of Aureus Autobody by a car

I lean toward the hero shots standing by the garage door or wide ones with dramatic lighting by the car. I think it speaks to your common entrepreneur who is faced with many challenges and has to find a creative way out, but at that moment we just needed to slow down and check the well-being of our people.

And that became one of the big takeaways for Gene as a result of doing this work: communication is key. It was this mindset that led to a smooth shoot. Everyone was on the same page as it related to safety restrictions and similar protocol, paving the way for a quick but successful day at the office.

I think the biggest concern when it comes to productions now is safety. We are expected to come wearing a mask and gloves, bring sanitizer, and have health insurance. But I can't overstate that communication is now more important than ever. Your client or subject need to know what you have in mind and how you will conduct your business. That will remove any friction during the shoot and will minimize risk involved.  


Photo Editor: Michael Bucher

Check out more of Gene's work at genesmirnov.com.

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Check out how WM is helping photographers during the pandemic on our COVID-19 Resources page.