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.

1 comment:

  1. I think your approach is good and really the central focus of this project. By connecting with your subjects, asking permission, and conversing with them about the project, not only will you will break down barriers between yourself and them, but you will do so for your viewers as well by offering a more personal, dignified glimpse into others' lives.