I photographed this man in Senegal earlier this month during some much needed time off. The encounter was so typical of much of my travels. You meet someone, drawn by their smile, their character, and with permission you raise the camera. And then it vanishes. For one reason or another that authentic thing that drew you disappears behind what? Something cultural that makes many African men get very stoic in the same way it makes asian girls flash a peace sign and cheesecake grin? Fear? Nerves? Whatever it is, that mask is often a layer of protection we don and in so doing we prevent our true selves from being seen. My job, because of the kinds of images I want, is to help draw that mask back down.
I am not seeking smiles, per se. Those can be as fake as the other masks we were. I am seeking a genuine expression of humanity, and while the stoic mask – or the cheesy peace sign – is certainly genuine, it’s not the vulnerable person underneath I capture in those cases, but the mask itself. What does it take to draw that mask down? Vulnerability on your own part. People trust those who trust them. I show my subjects my trust by being willing to stumble badly over language in attempts to communicate, or simply to clown around with them. Take the moment less seriously and often they will too. Portraiture is a dance and it needs to be approached as a collaboration. The more willing you are to wait it out, slow down, and be vulnerable, the more readily your subject will be able to do the same.
Click on the image above to see the complete sequence in a larger image.
Funny to be reading this post now. Currently shooting in India wrestling with the same problem of ready made poses from subjects. I’m learning to take their photo upwards of 20-30 and sometimes 50 times in order to get back to the expression that attracted me to them in the first place. Fortunately, Indians are incredibly hospitable people and always oblige as I snap away a countless number of times.
So, what did you tell him ?
I love the way so many of your photos capture the “essence” of a person. I feel like I am viewing your personal interaction, not merely a “picture of” someone, but of their feeling, their “being” – which is always much more powerful. As a wedding photographer, this is what I seek in my brides and grooms as I attempt pictures that depict them as they “truly are.” Thanks as always for your insights – I feel this capability is a journey and not a destination 🙂
Camera’s do funny things to people, its true. I think what I like best about this series is the first image where he isn’t smiling. It adds a really interesting dynamic. You almost don’t catch it at first glance. There’s a depth to it. And I like it.
It takes a special gift and self to get through to someone’s true spirit let alone take a good photograph of it. Great job David – I can take these lessons and at least use them on my daughters when I point the camera at them.
Good point, however he can smile anytime. He looks like a lovely warm fellow to me. It made me smile.
Hi David – I had a good chuckle when I saw this post – it was exactly what I experienced while i Viet Nam and Laos last year. I really had the feeling that people were putting on their “best camera face,” but after we got that first shot out of the way and interacted a bit longer there were lots of shots with their personality shining through. Cheers and thanks for sharing this.
I like this little series. You brought out his beautiful humanity, and the colors are brilliant!
This is an excellent point to make, not only in photography, but in life in general. In our culture we often talk about “keeping it real.” While, the authenticity that is a part of “keeping it real” is good, I believe vulnerability is even better. We can be authentic but not put ourselves in a position to allow others to speak into, and enrich, our lives.
When we recognize that the person we are engaging has so much to teach us and input into our lives, we can take off our own mask, engage the other person with humility and vulnerability, and have such a deeper and more valuable interaction. And, as you have said so well, the other person will see your vulnerability and trust and feel safe to do the same. Out of that will come not only more compelling images, but richer life experience.
Thanks for the great reminder of the importance of vulnerability in our photography and interactions with others.
The problem you identify a key problem that everyone who takes pictures of people faces. I appreciate the general principle that you lay out here, but it would also be helpful to know the particulars of what you have found to be effective in producing the trust that you mention. How do you engage in that type of conversation and keep shooting at the same time? What were some of the ways that you found effective in getting this man to open up? Thanks so much for your thoughts and observations.
Wonderful message!! And that trust is something to keep in balance. In showing that we are vulnerable the other person doesn’t feel threatened. We have a better chance of our humanity reaching theirs….beyond the language, culture and etc. Thanks for the reminder. You put it so well.