Monday, October 18, 2010

Subject as Partner

It seems like the easiest thing in the world.

Find your subject. Snap a picture.

Tourists do it all the time. Cute little Mayan children. Amish boys in a wagon. Ten-year-old monks in orange garb. People are our favorite photographic subjects.

But talk to your subject? That's a little intimate, isn't it?

I spend a lot of my professional life as a portrait photographer. Most are business portraits and family portraits that the subject wants to look perfect. I'm fine with that. I love portrait work. No, let me rephrase that. I LOVE portrait work. Anyone who has tried to take a good portrait of a friend or family member knows it's harder than it looks.

Once in a while a client wants a portrait that shows who they are, not just what they look like. I try to put energy and life into every portrait, but some subjects are closed; some are very open. My job is to find that spark that makes them who they are and print that on a flat piece of paper.

There's something magical when I know I've truly captured a piece of that personality.

There's only one way to do that. Relationship.

Make a photograph surreptitiously, hidden, from across the street, and you're likely to be met with anger and resentment. There's a myth that people in traditional cultures don't like having a picture taken because their "soul has been stolen." Really? I don't think so. Maybe that what they tell us because they think we can't understand or won't respect the real reason: they were treated like an object, not a person. In a way, something was stolen. Their dignity. Their permission. Their privacy.

When I first starting talking about Dare to Touch the Face of God, I knew I wanted to include subjects that would be uncomfortable for me. And for other people. That's part of the point. We don't have to make peace with our friends. We MUST talk to our enemies.

I don't really consider any of the people I want to include in the project as my enemies, but there are ideas and practices I'm uncomfortable with. Or that I know other people find troubling. Finding a way to ease these tensions -- and outright hostilities --  with a human face, a human voice, a human being, is my ultimate goal.

It's easy to get images. It's harder to start relationships.

One of the decisions I made from the beginning of the project is NEVER to photograph a person without his or her permission. Signed permission. An artist is not required to get a model release from a person. Legally, I can photograph anyone in a public place without their permission when used for artistic or editorial purposes.

Ok, fine. I have the law on my side. But what does it do the project when I'm shielded by the law? How can I create a project that addresses fear and intolerance if I'm too afraid or too wary to meet people? How can we find the face of God when we're not talking to the person first?

I'm awkward at approaching subjects. But I know I get better portraits when someone is my partner, not just the subject. The work benefits from the conversation, from the permission, from the relationship.

And as we talk, barriers instantly begin to break down. I don't mean that suddenly all is right with the world, but the world becomes a little less scary. It's a start.

Crossing boundaries to bring people into a project of this magnitude is time consuming, costly, and taxing -- emotionally and intellectually.

I think it's going to be worth it.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Out of the Comfort Zone

The priests were not protesting at Planned Parenthood on Sunday morning. I drove past them, thinking I might be too early.

Instead, I drove downtown. I wasn't sure where I was going, but I knew I would know it when I saw it.

I did, in an empty city block across from St. Louis City Library. The magnificent library is closed for renovation. Chained link fencing and orange plastic fencing encloses the work site. Streets are closed off. The grassy block, which probably somebody thought would double as a park, has a few trees and a lot of people at night, fewer during the day. They live there.

I admit this is WAY outside my comfort zone. Most of the people in the "park" were men. They were rolling bedding, stowing their belongings, preparing themselves for another day. As I parked the car, I saw one woman, and farther away, a young child with a man.
Jacqueline, ©2010 Jeane Vogel

Two people on a bench nearby watched as I got out of the car, flung a couple of cameras over my shoulder and made my way into a public space that was home to a dozen or more people.

Was I a little nervous? Sure? I'm a middle-aged spongy white woman armed with two professional cameras in a park of a dozen or more homeless people ... and I wanted something from them.

But I learned a lot time ago: people are people first. Everyone wants to be treated with respect and honesty. Is there evil in the world? Are there criminal sociopaths? Sure. But most people are not. And the people in this park were people first. I waited a respectful distant from one group until I was invited in.

Jacqueline was very happy to talk to me about the project. She apologized for still being in bed. She was moving slowly this morning.

She didn't want to talk about God. She did want to talk about being grateful for a warm October. She doesn't want to have to move into the shelter yet.

Keith, ©2010 Jeane Vogel
I talked to Jacqueline and her friend for a while. I opened a pack a crackers that four-year-old Jordan was having trouble with. Keith and I talked about the prospects for the project, where is was going and when it would be exhibited.

I had $6 in my wallet. They said they could get some lunch with that.

Homelessness is a disgrace. But people who are homeless are not. I'm grateful for welcome I got. And I know I will have to answer to some people: Are you crazy? they will ask. Did you have a gun? my mother will want to know. How could you do that? You could have been hurt! 

If one of my major principles for this project is that all people are people of faith, then all people have to be in the project. Not just people I'm comfortable with. Not just people who will pose for me in the studio. Not just people who live pretty, interesting lives.  But all people.

Homelessness is at epidemic proportions. People have lost their homes, their jobs, their safety nets. They have not lost their humanity.

While thousands of faces of God were found in churches early Sunday morning, they were also in that grassy city block that masquerades as a park, hoping the weather holds warm and dry for a few more weeks.

It was time well spent out of my comfort zone.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Overcoming Biases

As I begin this project, I've been thinking about the type of portraits I want to create- and what statement I want to make. Art is, after all, communication.

First I looked at my fears and prejudices. What an uncomfortable process this will be! If part of the project's goal is to respond to religious intolerance, I have to get mine own out of the way first.

Let's be honest. Everyone has biases. Everyone has misconceptions. The trick is not acting upon them or letting them influence decisions.

I say it's "trick" because, to me, it's seems to take a sprinkling of magical fairy dust to erase those fears. While I find it incomprehensible that someone will see "terrorist" when they see a Muslim family -- to cite an all too common example today -- I will admit to seeing "anti-woman" when I see a Catholic priest protesting abortion services. That's one of my biases. It's a biggie.

But that person is a person of faith too. We can't both be right. But we can both be people.

So that's where I'm starting.

If I expect other people to confront bias and see a person of faith as a person first, I clearly have to do the work too.

What are the biases you see?

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Project Begins!

Welcome to Dare to Touch the Face of God blog!

Over the next several years, I plan to use this space as journal, a sounding board and a forum to generate ideas, work out details, discuss your concerns and grow the project.

As you might already know, this project is my response to the overwhelming religious hatred we hear almost everyday. Dare to Touch the Face of God is a planned series of intimate photographic portraits of religious leaders and lay people of the widest possible faith spectrum. I will work with subjects to capture their sense of practice or understanding of their faith practices and principles.

The series is intended to capture to breadth of religious understanding among people, and to further the definition of God.

The work will be presented as a public exhibition, on on-line exhibition and discussion, and a published book.

Want to know more? The dedicated website is