Approaching Subjects as People

March 15, 2013

The way photographers approach a subject will have a lot of influence on the look and feel of the final image, especially if people are involved.  If your subject is essentially a stranger to you as mine often are, the tendency for them to convey guarded or surprised expressions is something I expect to see.  I have to work around the problem if natural expression is the goal.  How to actually handle such a conundrum has a number of solutions, but as a general rule I think having an air of authority helps, and a good deal of patience doesn’t hurt either.  Act like you belong, hang around for a while and more than likely people will accept and begin to ignore your presence.  But sometimes no matter how long you wait, people will not lower their defenses and remain emotionally distant.  You just have to realize that the photographic contraption you hold in your hand is serving to sabotage everything you are trying to do!

 

I think of the gritty historical fiction film "The Wind That Shakes the Barley" by director Ken Loach.  In the bonus features on the DVD, Loach talks about how he coaxed natural performances out of the actors in crucial scenes by hiding the film cameras far outside of the set, utilizing longer lenses to allow the audience in close to the actors for the scene, without having cameras right on top of them during filming.  Of course they knew they were being filmed, but the actors said the process had a realistic intensity they enjoyed and that the absence of the camera allowed them to be more fully engaged with each other.  Loach was keenly aware of the way the presence of a camera affects people's behavior even when they fully accept its presence. 

 

Truth is photographers use a tool that has been and will continue to be used in a great many ways that have tainted our reputation as a group.  From espionage to pornography, the camera has been a tool to do a great many jobs that fall short of a noble pursuit.  Even when we use it to reveal great wrong we are often criticized by people for showing what people would rather avert their eyes from.  We photographers have to carry that baggage as we move forward in our work in a world with a standing bias against us, regardless of our motives.   

 

But a good photographer will roll with the punches and work with what is given.  The key is to know the limitations and boundaries of what we have to work with.  We must keep in mind that how we move, what we do with the camera, how we physically interact with the scene and subject is as critical an element in the photograph as framing, timing and the light. 

 

But perhaps even more important than anything that I can convey technically is to share what my friend and mentor Benita Keller taught me about working with people and making photographs.   The easiest way into a great image is also the most honest and wholesome approach - that of being a good human being first.  Find your passion if only for this day, live your life honestly and you will find something that is yours to make photographs of.  Give to your subjects, and chances are they will reciprocate by lowering their defenses and being themselves.  You might even make a friend - then you can pick up the camera and begin to work and allow creativity to take over. 

 


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