Portraits are difficult for me. I don’t know if it’s me or my upbringing, but I find it hard to establish a rapport with my subject. When I say portraits, I mean not just a picture, but an image that reveals at least a glimpse of the person’s soul.
Doing portraits requires you to kind of invade someone’s personal space. To force their privacy, their intimacy. You have to get close, both psychologically and physically. Of course, I know, you can use a tele lens, and in fact, most of us do so for portraits, but that makes no difference for your subject: you just stare at him or her.
In the past, some cultures wouldn’t even allow you to photograph people, because you were said to take away their souls. In a very real sense, that’s actually true: we don’t make photographs, we TAKE photographs, “nous PRENONS des photos”. I guess it’s the “taking”, that unilateral act of appropriation that grates with me.
Even performing artists and models, or politicians, who’re used to being photographed, and most of the time don’t even pay attention to you, are a challenge. They’re public figures, and tend to be extremely attentive and protective about the image they project. Getting through to them, to their inner soul is even tougher.
That’s probably why you rarely see people in the photographs I take for myself: I literally shy away from them.
In a studio environment, or in filming I find it a bit easier, but that’s because it’s usually initiated by the subject: let’s say a company asks me to do a corporate video for their website, and I have to film their CEO or some management member. They invite me into their private space. Before actual filming, I have had conversations on what the film is going to be about, I’ve written an outline, discussed it with them, wrote out a story, or the main lines for an interview, so by the time I come to prepare the set, the lighting, the sound, they know me, feel (I hope) comfortable with me, or at least with the whole situation, maybe we’ve moved on to a first name basis (in Europe first names only come after a while…). So, they’re more or less willing to lower their guard.
And then, sometimes, there’s that spark, I’ve caught that indefinable something that makes the difference between just a video and a portrait. The strange thing is, that I rarely actually realize that on set. It’s later, when I’m at my computer, doing the editing, that it strikes me. When I combine bits and pieces of clips, when slowly, like a photographic print slowly appearing in the developing tray, out of a subject, a real live person begins to emerge.
And that, that is a very strong emotion.