The announcement of the third season of “Queer Eye” rippled through our community in waves, beginning in Kansas City where the Emmy-winning program was set to be filmed and buzzing across the state through excited text messages and social media updates. The promise of Kansas City’s blossoming art and food scene, as well as the beguiling, deeply cultured roots of the city, seemed to be validated by Netflix’s decision to base the show’s third season there.
Even before the show’s March release, promotional photos circulated Twitter and popped up on Instagram feeds across the nation. Attributed at the tail end of sentences or sometimes not at all, the pictures seemed like bits of real life snatched from the intriguing world behind the “Queer Eye” cameras. The pictures, though, would not have been created without Kansas photographer Christopher Smith.
Smith took photos throughout the process of nearly every episode of “Queer Eye,” working around the filming cameras and set staff to capture as many moments as possible.
“My job was to document what was happening on camera, behind the camera, on set with the Fab Five, with the Hero, with the producers, and just creating a photographic document of this very important cultural movement,” Smith said.
Smith is the first photographer ever hired to capture still moments of the “Queer Eye” experience. He was present for what is known as the “ambush day,” or the day when the show’s cast (Jonathan Van Ness, Antoni Porowski, Karamo Brown, Tan France and Bobby Berk), commonly known as the Fab Five, assess each episode’s Hero, or the person undergoing the makeover. Later, Smith was present for the reveal day, during which the Fab Five would reveal the ways in which they transformed their Hero’s physical appearance, home, diet and mindset.
“When the reveal would come and you could see that transformation externally and internally from somebody, everyone on set and behind the camera was extremely moved,” Smith said. “There were tears almost every week. It’s very inspiring.”
Smith’s job as a photographer came with difficulties. Smith was taking photos during filming, forcing him to maneuver around cameramen and the set without making any sound. He purchased a camera for the show that had a silent shutter so he could photograph while the cameras were rolling, but that didn’t help the difficulties that came with finding the perfect angle.
“Often times, the right place for me was also the right place for the [filming] cameras,” Smith said. “I’d have to kind of twist my body and get around those cameras very delicately and very quietly to make that image and get that moment. I had to make my pictures within these confines, sort of like a dance to be able to anticipate where cameras were moving so that I could either step out of the way or be in the right place without stopping shooting.”
Smith admits that there were mistakes made, whether it be bumping into a camera operator or a nightstand on set. The crew, he found, were always more than forgiving and understanding of his duties as a photographer, especially as he learned to respect that the filming was more important than his own work.
“It was just such a forgiving atmosphere,” Smith said. “Ultimately, I had to remind myself that the most important thing was the show. That’s why I was there. I couldn’t really disrupt anything to get my shot. I do think I recognized that early and … it gave me a little more respect in the eyes [of the director and producers], so they’d work with me when I needed a picture.”
Although Smith entered the project unsure of what to expect, this mutual respect between him and the show-makers as well as the camaraderie that formed among the cast and crew created a warm, friendly environment.
“I think my favorite moments [came from] the family atmosphere that comes from being on set every day,” Smith said. “I was really nervous because I was a still photographer and I perceived my place in the process to be relatively low. I think I came into it very humble, not expecting to be welcomed in, but very quickly I became what I felt like was part of the family, part of the group, part of the cast.”
This certainly isn’t Smith’s first time working on a big project, as he has shot for The New York Times as well as for The Washington Post. Although Smith’s other photography is garnering more attention after his work on “Queer Eye,” his photos for the show have gained national fame.
“The photos from the show are everywhere,” Smith said. “I had no idea what to expect. I knew I was shooting for promotion and that they’d be used, but after things got released, I searched my name and ‘Queer Eye,’ and the photos are everywhere, in magazines and newspapers. It’s very exciting. I’m not always credited, which is okay: just knowing that I made this visual document of something really exciting and knowing it’s getting out there for everybody…it’s brilliant. I couldn’t be more excited about it.”
All in all, Smith looks back on his time working with “Queer Eye” fondly, labeling it as one of the highlights of his career. Although Smith is limited in what he can reveal about the Fab Five, he can attest to the cheerfulness and compassion of the crew.
Smith said, “This is probably one of the most amazing crews I’ve ever met. There was always a forward-looking positivity and an encouraging atmosphere. I think it has a lot to do with the Fab Five and what they preach. It filters to everybody on set. What you see on camera is what you get in person. I was very amazed with how genuine each person was. I’ve photographed World Series, I’ve photographed presidents and candidates, I’ve photographed disasters on epic scales, I’ve photographed musicians, but for me, this, of all of those, will be the highlight of my career. I couldn’t be more fortunate to have been a part of it.”