Mongolia, 2008. Image shot for World Vision Canada.
With all the talk about technique it’s easy to forget, or to never learn at all, that the most important skills in portraiture aren’t photographic at all. You can use your fanciest 135/2.0 or 85/1.2 lens, blast 3 SB900 flashes through 6-foot octaboxes, or choose the best backgrounds the world has ever seen and create portraits that are beautiful but lifeless. Or worse, beautiful but without being a reflection of the subject of that portrait. The best portraitists use a variety of gear and technique to create their portraits. What they share in common is a love for, and curiosity about, people. They respect their subjects enough to engage them, to dig a little deeper, and to create something that’s collaborative – one to make the photograph, the other to reveal themselves. Neither task is easy. I’m re-learning these lessons in deeper ways lately.
My last assignment, from which I’m barely now recovered, was primarily to create a series of portraits and landscapes that reflect the lives of the Samburu, Rendille, and Turkana in northern Kenya for The Boma Project. As I made portraits day-in and day-out for 2 weeks I found myself waiting longer and longer, becoming more patient, and making better portraits. So often we get uncomfortable staring through the lens at someone. They get uncomfortable and awkward, and we pack it in. What I’ve found is that the longer I wait, the more willing I am to push through the moments of awkard, the more rewarded I am when that tension breaks, when a genuine laugh comes, when they look over my shoulder at friends, or just simply return my unflinching gaze with something more than awkwardness or boredom and look past the front lens element and beyond, into the camera.
My most valued skill has become not an ability to use natural light or pose a subject, but patience, and a willingness to wait for that moment, the one Steve McCurry talks about as the moment when the walls come down and the soul comes into view. I wait longer now – just waiting, no talking, no trying to make the moment happen – and am more satisfied with the authenticity of the emotions and characters I’m seeing in my photographs.