With the exception of candid street photography all images of people involve some degree of awareness on the part of the subject. However, the degree of involvement does vary. It can be divided into 3 main types:
- The subject is having their portrait taken on one occasion either as:
- A deliberate choice on the part of the subject such as a formal portrait
- A choice on the part of the photographer such as a requested photograph of a stranger in the street. Examples of these are the June Street series by Daniel Meadows and the work done by Tom Wood see: Project 1 – The unaware – 2 where he became the Photie Man.
- An ongoing portrait series of a person or a group of people either taken over several days or even years where the subject, although known to the photographer, is not emotionally involved. An example is the series in the face of silence (Agou, 2011) by Christophe Agou.
- An ongoing series of portraits of someone who is well known to the photographer such as family or a close friend. Examples here are Mother (Graham, 2019) by Paul Graham and Big Brother (Quail, 2018) by Louis Quail and the photographs of his wife Eleanor by Harry Callahan.
Another example of type 3 is Looking for Alice by Siân Davey in which she tells the story of the life of her daughter, Alice, who was born with Down’s Syndrome and the impact this has on the family’s life. In the foreword she says ‘the process of photographing this work has helped me shine a light on why I struggled to love Alice, which was essentially fear and uncertainty …. she is now in the middle of everything that we do as a family and is loved unconditionally’ (Davey, 2015). Davey went on to produce a book of images about her older daughter, Martha, at her request (Davey, 2019). She talks at length about her life and motivation for taking these images in a podcast A Small Voice – Siân Davey.
These categories can become blurred, especially the latter two, when a series continues over several years. This is very noticeable in the work for every minute you are angry you lose sixty seconds of happiness (Germain and Snelling, 2014) by Julian Germain, where he started off with an unknown subject Mr Snelling, who he got to know very well over several years, with the images becoming more intimate over time. Another example of the blurring between a subject and a friend occurs in Nina Berman’s book An Autobiography of Miss Wish (Berman and Stevens, 2017) in which she initially meets a stranger, a drug addict and a prostitute on the street and over many years develops a friendship that includes housing her for a time and being her sponsor. The final book is a collaboration between Berman and Miss Wish (Kimberly Stevens) and includes both photographs, copies of her medical documentation and drawings done by Stevens.
The skills needed for all portraits of aware subjects include (in no particular order):
- The ability to make a connection and read the person and therefore show their feelings
- Real engagement to build trust – possibly very rapidly in a one-off shoot
- The need to keep separate your emotion and the subjects (they may be the same – or very different) – and the photo will depend on how you interpret them
- The ability to think about the whole image, not just the person. Both the content and the framing are important.
- The need to choose between either being an observer (neutral) or a participant (a director) – both can work well but probably not in the same image
- Consider lighting – inside or outside, natural or flash, soft or hard – what will show what you need?
- Get permission which may be explicit (in writing) or implicit (the person sees you pointing the camera at them and agrees by not turning away)
A useful reference book which discusses these points is on the Portrait and the Moment by Mary Ellen Mark (Mark, 2015).
Agou, C. (2011). In the face of silence. Stockport: Dewi Lewis.
Berman, N. and Stevens, K. (2017). An Autobiography of Miss Wish. Heidelberg: Kehrer.
Davey, S. (2015). Looking for Alice. Great Britain: Trolley Ltd.
Davey, S. (2019). Martha. Hertfordshire: Trolleybooks.
Davey, S. and Smith, B. (2017). Siân Davey. [online] A Small Voice. Available at: https://bensmithphoto.com/asmallvoice/sian-davey [Accessed 22 Oct. 2019].
Germain, J. and Snelling, C. (2014). For every minute you are angry you lose sixty seconds of happiness: portrait of an elderly gentleman. London: Mack.
Graham, P. (2019). Mother. S.L.: Mack.
Mark, M.E. (2015). on the portrait and the moment. New York Aperture.
Quail, L. (2018). Big Brother. Stockport: Dewi Lewis Publishing.