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.