Portraits: Some Questions Answered.

In Craft & Vision, e-books, Thoughts & Theory by David21 Comments


Old Havana, Cuba, 2009

I got some questions after we released the latest eBook, Forget Mugshots, 10 Steps to Better Portraits, that I thought I’d answer here. Some of this stuff was answered in Within The Frame, The Journey of Photographic Vision, but I don’t expect everyone to have read that, so here’s some additional ideas that have come up. Matt Brandon and I talk about some of them, and others, on the next Craft & Vision podcast, so if you’re a subscriber, that’ll be up in the coming weeks.

How do you overcome the fear?

Honestly, I’m not sure I ever do. I still struggle with this. But I love people and I love the exchanges with people I’ve never met, in languages I don’t speak. I think we don’t so much fear saying hello or talking to people when we ask to make a photograph, we fear being told “No.” So if you can hold that a little more loosely, even make the photograph secondary to the simple act of meeting people and encountering something “other” in a stranger, then it makes it a little easier. But pragmatically, the best approach for me has been to take a deep breath and walk up to the person before I second-guess myself and turn and walk away. It’s not unlike what I used to do when I went on stage; I’d put on my character, smile big, and walk on pretending I wasn’t scared. And it worked. Now of course, this all relates to photographing strangers. If you’re scared of approaching people you know, then you either need to work it out and work through the fear, or perhaps admit that people photography isn’t for you.

Do you pay your subjects?

This is a tough one. I’m not a photojournalist. But I also know that my approach to the people I work with is going to change or reinforce the way these people will interact with other photographers. Pay one person, the argument goes, and you ruin it for others. Agreed. That’s true. But sometimes these arguments come off sounding so miserly. I think, first of all, if you have some kind of relationship and it’s not a run-and-gun kind of approach you’re using, then you get asked far, far less. Hell, stick a camera in my face without introducing yourself or talking to me, and see if I don’t ask for a couple bucks. I also think there are other ways to create an exchange, without giving money. You give time, attention, a print – either right there and then with something like the Polaroid Pogo or by mailing prints back to them. You can buy something from their stall or shop. You can buy two cups of tea and share it, or offer a cigarette (I don’t, but if you smoke…). What I’m getting at is that relationships dictate the possibilities for exchange. Be open to them. Does money ever enter the equation? Sure. Sometimes I’ve been with a subject long enough that compensation for time spent is reasonable and generous. Sometimes they have a need and I make it clear that I am grateful for their gift of time spent with me and would like to reciprocate with a gift of my own, making it clear that it’s a gift, not a payment per se. Sometimes they get it, sometimes not. There are no rules, but if you’re giving cash because it makes it easier and is a substitute for the harder act of spending time and muddling through language, then take the higher path, put the cash away, man-up and spend some time.

What about model releases?

I’ll be brief. A. Model releases are about USE, not about whether you can or can’t make the photograph in the first place. If all you want to do is make portraits, then go for it. B For everything else, because this is about USE, ask the people who will be using the images. Ask the client or stock agency (the answer will be YES!), or publisher. For grey areas, speak to a lawyer, because this is a legal matter. But if what you want to do is make photographs, and a model release isn’t needed or desired, then make your art and don’t let the issue trouble you. By far the vast majority of my people photography is done without a release.

Any other tips?

I thought you’d never ask. I want to reinforce the idea I’ve mentioned before: patience and curiosity are some of the most undervalued photographic skills, especially when you are working with people. Ask questions, spend some time, don’t be in such a hurry to pick up the camera. I know people want me to give them a magic formula, but there aren’t any. Use any lens you want, pick an aperture you like, use flash or don’t; what matter is how you connect with the subject.Be nice, kind, respectful, and the majority of people will respond in kind, and that will show in the photographs. After that a photograph is a photograph – pay attention to light and moments and the geometry of the frame (composition). But start with your people skills. Then pick up the camera.

Got any other questions, leave them in the comments and I’ll do what I can to discuss them.

 

Comments

  1. I respect and appreciate very much your work and your talent.

    La vie est important.

  2. Thanks for the post. Reinforces what I thought about travel photography and portraits.

    I am a landscape photographer who also want to share stories of people during those travels. But I am terrified at the thought of pointing my camera at a stranger. So I took up this project called 100 Strangers Project. Seems to be working slowly. 🙂

  3. “Vision Mongers” is what got me encouraged and motivated to approach strangers to photograph them. There are plenty of other photographers with the same kind of advice–sort of. But the way you talk it about the nuances of it, is what made yours resonate with me. And for that (among other things from you), I am forever grateful.

  4. Just came to my mind that day you kind of pushed me to photograph an old man sitting in a bench somewhere in Cinque Terre. I know, you don’t remember, but I won’t ever forget 🙂 It left a scar! I didn’t take that photo but, the lesson was learned and, with a little bit more of pushing here and there, things have changed a lot since then 😉
    Take care!

  5. I’ve always found photographing people to be horribly difficult, not in the technical sense but getting the nerve to approach and engage someone. On those rare occasions when I’ve done what you recommend the results have been worthwhile. Thanks for the reminder, and the insight. Much of life, it seems, really is about establishing and developing relationships. Thanks for everything you do.

  6. Rosa, I remember the moment really clearly! Glad to hear it scarred you, I mean, that the lesson stuck. 🙂

  7. Curious, on the model releases: when you are shooting portraits or street photography for NGOs, do you get or do they require model releases? Seems it’d be very hard to get from somebody who doesn’t speak English and quite likely doesn’t read even their own language…

  8. Author

    Matt – When I work for NGOs and they state clearly that they need model releases (which they usually do), then yes, I get model releases and that’s usually the job of my assitant or producer, in collaboration with local staff or connections. And then it’s rarely what I would call street photography. It’s assignment work and it takes a team. Not easy stuff. If you were doing street stuff you’d need a local contact or fixer to work with you.

  9. Dave – Excellent information, thanks! I tend to work best in a team, with others taking care of those details. I love making pictures, and enjoy hearing the stories of people, but really don’t like paperwork! It’s really good to have that tiny glance into your world on what the NGOs do. 🙂

  10. Dave I so much appreciate the fear that goes along with taking pictures of strangers. When I’ve done it it was great when the said yes, very unnerving when they said no. Thanks for the opportunity to hear from others who share my situation. Loved the Forgot Mugshots book.

  11. Hi David, great article. I am an avid follower of your blog and find stranger portaits the hardest.

    I have a question, when taking such portraits, for example that one from Havan, Cuba published here, do you direct the stranger to pose or anything? For example that guy with the cigar ?

  12. Author

    Goldstein – Generally with my street portraits I let the subject do what they like and I wait it out if what they give me is indifferent or cheesy or insincere. They break eventually. 🙂 In the case of the man above, it was totally natural. He was fighting with his cigar, trying to re-light it, I think, and I just watched him, raised my camera with an “is this OK?” look and said, “Photograph?” with a big smile. He gave me what I interpret as a “sure, why not?” kind of gesture, and this was the tail end of that.

  13. Asking by smiling works – and respecting the shake of the head for a ‘no’ is just as important. I would hate it if people ignored my wishes when I was working or with my family and just took photos anyway.

    Beautiful image, David.

  14. Thanks for sharing David! I just applied one of the lessons in Forget Mugshots, I photographed a couple of skateboarders as I walked past, but instead of taking grabshots I waved hello, and they waved back. And then they seemed to want to do some more tricks just for the camera! It felt more like a connection was made then just a few photographs.

    I am curious about one thing though: When you say that the majority of your portraits are shot without a release, do you mean the ones that are published in your books and ebooks? If so, why is this okay from a legal perspective?

    I know you’re not a lawyer so I’m not asking for any legal advice, would just wonder if you’d share your own experience.

  15. Thanks for the insight. A always really enjoy everything you have to share. Anytime I describe any of your books to someone I always tell them it feels like I’m sitting right next to you on the side of a street in foreign country, and you’re giving some pointers right before we go shoot together. You have a very honest informal style, and it’s fantastic.

  16. Hi David,
    I recognise your approach. when I visited China it took a few attempts for myself to reduce my own limitations/ barrieres but once succesful in making personal contact, spend time with the people I would like to catch in a frame, I discovered that a) people like to cooperate but b) also the fact to talk with them and make contact gave also more added value to the frame because the individu becomes a person with a story which I will remember for years and c) you are right, the pictures are far more natural and better, you see far more the real soul of the person rather than the surface. But as I said, it took a few attempts to get the approach. Also my pogo was very useful. You give really something back to people which they appreciate based on own experiences.

    See you in Liguria 🙂

    Gr. Stefan

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