I have been wanting to write a blog which talks about my approach to portrait photography for some time now. I don’t class myself as a dedicated portrait photographer, it is a discipline within my photography that accompanies my writing and story-telling, ultimately creating a more sincere and complete piece of work. nevertheless it does form a large part of my work, if you have ever read any of my interviews, you will find accompanying the so called action shots, are relevant portrait photographs.
With this in mind, I want to share with you some of the key methods and ideas that I employ when approaching my portrait work. I have learned a great deal over the years, mostly from analysing what I feel has not worked during previous projects as well as listening to feed back from publishers and subjects alike. This is not a step by step guide and the order in which I have written these points is not necessarily the order of my workflow. My aim is to offer a window into some of the thoughts and processes that I typically run through when capturing portrait shots.
It is in my opinion, that the relationship between between the photographer and subject is the one that is the most neglected. It is the quality of this liaison that will ultimately dictate how the observer will feel about a piece of work you are putting out into the public domain. Will it be perceived as sincere? Are you genuinely interested in your subjects story? Or are you simply wanting to create a false narrative purely for Instagram content; nothing more than to massage your own ego.
You have to take time to understand your subject. Try to spend a moment imagining what it might be like to walk a mile in their shoes. Listen to what they have to say and take a legitimate interest in what they are saying. Do not adorn them with platitudes so you can simply get them in front of the camera, remember, a photo should invoke a feeling and failing on any of the points above will yield a defensive response from your subject - whether or not they are consciously aware of it at the time.
Taking the time to build a genuine and honest relationship will build trust, and with trust comes honesty. Only once you understand the importance of these two ingredients and started implementing them within your work will you start to take sincere and honest portrait photographs.An open and relaxed subject will do all the work for you, they will have their life story written all over their face. But in order to see it, you have to reveal it, and in order to reveal it you have to care about the time they have gifted to you. Building a relationship is the key to achieving this.
What story are you wanting to tell
You have to be absolutely clear in your mind prior to the shoot exactly how you want your final image/images to look. In fact, do you ever ask you self the question Why am I taking this image? This is important in order for you to ensure that you are working within a workflow that helps tell the story you are wanting to tell. For example, there is no point in writing a piece of work about the ageing faces of sport climbers if all your accompanying portrait photos are of trad climbers, cleverly lit to reduce the appearance of age. Knowing exactly what story you are wanting to tell and why you are wanting to tell it will create a much more fluid workflow. Your subject will feel at ease as it will be evident to them that you are wanting to tell a story about who they are and simply not execute a soulless shoot. Unless of course you are just wanting to create instagram content or are shooting for a Jackamo Catalogue. It’s the story contained within an image that in my opinion has more clout than the technical proficiently. Technical competency can be easily taught and learnt. Understanding why you are wanting to take an image is a little more illusive.
The Coalescence of clarity and trust
Without clarity there is no trust, and without trust there will never be clarity. A paradox that took me longer than I would have liked to figure out! This point does relate back to my initial insight The Relationship. When you are telling an individuals story through the medium of photography you have to make your intentions known to the subject from the start. In no way must you have alternative motives or hidden agendas. With clarity comes the trust and with this trust comes and honest story. Clarity in what you are wanting to do, how you are wanting to do it and why you are doing it should be evident to all involved from the very first contact with your subject. I always ask my self the question, am I being clear with myself here? And only when a clear answer comes back will I start the process of engagement.
See don’t just look
People often are always looking but very few people have learnt to see! By seeing its possible to capture what I often call the moments in between. What I mean here is the small quirks we have with our facial expressions - it’s what contributes to the expressions of our personality. Being able to see these moments in-between and recognising them will help you peer into a persons deeper sense of self. Its during these moments that we see a persons true personality; often witnessing things that only their closest allies will get the privilege of seeing. But without seeing you wont notice any of this, and you will focus on the global expressions. I find that the best was to revel these moments in between is to initially engage with your subject without the camera in sight. This is especially useful if you have identified a subject that is particularly nervous.