Old Delhi, India, is one of my favourite places to wander with a camera. It’s a sensually overwhelming place, busy with people and motorcycles, the honking of horns and calls to prayer, the air rich with the too-fragrant smells of thousands of humans, chai stalls, and spice markets. It’s alive and vital and, for the most part, incredibly welcoming to the person led by their curiosity.
I found this blacksmith in the back alleys, sitting in a dark shop banging out his wage beside a small hot forge. I don’t find encounters like this come naturally to me. Most of the time I have to fake it, put on a smile, take a deep breath and brace myself for rejection when I bring my camera up in that universally understood gesture that says, May I make your photograph? In fact I know very few people for whom this kind of thing comes easily. But curiosity drives us, so does the idea of getting past the awkwardness and into that place where we meet someone so different from ourselves.
The photograph, much as we love it, is a beautiful by-product, not the end in itself. In fact, when the photograph is the point it often sabotages the process and ensures we don’t make the very photograph we were hoping for. Instead, it’s the non-photographic skills that make an image like this: respect, curiosity, patience, kindness, and an ability to get by without any language more common than gesture and laughter.
I bent low to get eye level with this man, using my very little Hindi to greet him. My name is David. I am from Canada. Everything after that was English he didn’t understand, but it allowed me to convey things in my voice, and, I think, put us both more at ease. Many will tolerate a photographer, but in my experience the best portraits are not made under this kind of mood. You want more than toleration; you want collaboration and you know very quickly whether someone will collaborate with you or not. You read their body language, wait for a smile or the side-to-side head wobble unique to the Indian sub-continent. This man, initially apprehensive, smiled briefly, dipped his chin and went back to his business, and I started mine.
You can have all the clever technique in the world, and the best camera and lens, but without the collaboration of your subject, you won’t make a portrait. The power of a portrait is in some revelation of the subject. It’s in the way we show our common humanity. In this case his unflinching eye contact, and his self-protective body language, show something we’ve all felt. I tell this to students and I think they’re genuinely disappointed because there’s no secret formula for this stuff.
Pay attention to body language. Watch for the light. Look at the details that support the environmental portrait. Use a lens that compliments what you’re trying to say and do with the image. Pay attention to the background. Use your depth of field to isolate. All good advice, but none of it worth anything if they don’t move past all that as fast as they can and make a connection. In my case part of that connection – and here’s my secret if there is one – is to be vulnerable and human myself, the opposite of what all this intimidating gear communicates to our subjects.
I helped the light in this scene with a small battery-powered LED panel (very much like this one), with a warm gel on the front to match the warm light from the forge. I placed it to camera right, close enough to the forge that I worried it might melt. And I fumbled and muttered as I often do, the light falling over repeatedly, the tension breaking with laughter. Do that and you’ll never lack a connection.
A good portrait is many things. It might be sharp and well exposed and draw your eye to the right places. But above all it must be human. To do that you need to connect. There is no other way.
This article originally appeared in PhotoLife magazine, in my column, Without the Frame.
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