Since my last post, a lot has happened. I traveled around the world (literally) and worked as a Director of Photography on a number of commercials and music videos. A large batch of photos is on the way.
Before I left for my trip I was asked to write an article for Elan, a local arts magazine. I was supposed to write about my process, and portraiture in general. Below is the full text from the article. Enjoy!
He was a cocaine dealer by trade, but he had begun to pursue music in the wake of a recent trial, the outcome of which could mean eight years in federal prison. He was sitting on a bench, the seat barely made it above the waterline, and his feet were in the frigid water.
I had met Zaire the day before and had my trepidations about spending time one-on-one
photographing a man who was unabashedly criminal. After a few minutes, all of my fears had evaporated, and suddenly I was the one struggling to earn his trust. We were shooting in a flooded park and he was hesitant to wade out to the bench I had chosen for him. He was amazed that I could stand in the freezing water for so long without complaining. Below the water, my legs had taken on a shade of lifeless blue.
As we were shooting Zaire was candid about prison life. He told me about his young daughter. He showed me pictures. We talked about his daughter’s mother, and the complicated relationship he had with her. We ended up spending the entire day together, and had I not been leaving for a trip that night, I would have surely been downtown grabbing a drink with him. I feel a strong bond with Zaire despite how little time we spent together. Shoots like that are what I live for.
As a portrait photographer, the challenge of my work is to connect with my subject on a personal level, often in a short period of time. A portrait makes a statement about someone, and it’s critical to me that this statement is accurate. Someone who only photographs the façade of his or her subject cannot make a true portrait. Great portraits are created by digging deep, and coaxing the subject to reveal a glimpse of something beyond their controlled public image.
An average relationship can take years to build. But that does not mean that it is impossible to form a bond with someone quickly. Over the years I have gradually improved in my ability to connect with people in a matter of minutes. Being a good listener certainly helps, but to connect with someone whom you just met requires one critical prerequisite; when you meet someone, you cannot assume anything. People are very sensitive about prejudice, and if a subject senses any judgement has been made, they will close the door on a deeper connection. Every person I meet, whether they are criminals or celebrities, I approach with complete naiveté. Criminals can be kind, celebrities can be humble, and even the scariest of people can be more endearing than you could imagine.
Once I have established a level of trust and rapport with a subject, I’ll lay out my intentions for them. Something like: “I don’t want a candy coated portrait, I want to capture you for who you are. I want someone who knows you really well to look at this image and say, ‘That’s him.’” Surprisingly, most subjects will respect my goal to show them as they are, and quickly shift to a quiet and serious demeanor. The majority of people, in their mind’s eye, are not smiling Facebook photos, they are complex and dynamic, and want to convey that in a portrait. I have had people tell me, “I don’t show that face to anyone, that is the real me and you captured it.” The more I am able to get a subject to trust me, the more they are inclined to trust my intentions.
Some subjects are very uncomfortable with the idea of a portrait. Many people have a very firm grip on how they want to be portrayed, and any deviance from this ‘self image’ can be intimidating. Professional models are my least favorite subjects because of their heightened awareness of the camera and consummate control over their expressions. For subjects like this, I often converse with them, and take photos while they are deep in thought or even while they are talking. It is not a straightforward process, and relies heavily on timing. But even difficult subjects can slowly become more comfortable, once they concede that they are not the ones making the portrait.
It would be easy to write portraits off as nothing more than photos. But to me, a true portrait not only captures someone for who they are, but also preserves who that person was at the moment the photo was taken. No other medium shows a person in such a clear way, while allowing for imagination and memories to form a pure concept of who that person was and is. It is what I intend to spend the rest of my life doing — it is my passion.