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Beyond a Single Image

By Aundre Larrow

“When we define the Photograph as a motionless image, this does not mean only that the figures it represents do not move; it means that they do not emerge, do not leave: they are anesthetized and fastened down, like butterflies.”—Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography.

The first portraits I took were terrible.

They were often underexposed, a little blurry, and cluttered with background elements that obscured the subject. The worst offense, however, wasn’t a technical shortcoming; it was my inability to capture the essence of the person in front of me.

STORIES FROM HERE

The biggest responsibility I have as a visual artist specializing in portraiture is to stay true to my subjects. Whether I capture them properly or not, that moment will be fastened and saved forever. It’s something I’m taking especially seriously as I’ve begun my Creative Residency and started chasing the idea of creating more fully immersive portraits.

Portrait of a child in San Antonio, Texas.

My main project, Stories from here, is a visual study of how our sense of place impacts us. So I’ve been traveling the country—so far I’ve been to El Paso, San Antonio, and Austin, Texas; Providence, Rhode Island; New Haven, Connecticut; and Los Angeles—and interviewing folks about their concept of home, their values, and what being American means to them.

“I think a key part of my identity is where I’m from, not necessarily where I am.”—Arlin William for Stories from here (click on the image to watch the video portrait).

Throughout the journey, I’ve been documenting each subject in an audio interview, a traditional portrait, and a video portrait. The idea is that a more immersive portrait will allow the viewer to learn more about the subject than the typical modern click, double tap, and scroll experience. I don’t believe that these notions are revolutionary; I just believe that as I am listening in the homes of strangers, I should treat their stories with reverence. For this project, my process rests on three main tenets:

  1. Listen 80 percent of the time.
  2. Don’t be afraid to stand still and just watch how they react.
  3. Allow the person to see how they are being portrayed; it helps build trust.

LISTEN MOST OF THE TIME

I’ve learned that for me to listen and for my audience to listen are two very different things and for the latter to happen, I need to get great audio.

Of course, listening is something I do every day. But until this project, I don’t believe I did it well. In the two hours or so I get to spend with each subject, I have hear them, understand them, and make them feel heard. This is listening at its core.

So I start by putting my phone face down, which is partially cheating because I use my phone as a recorder so I can’t use it to distract me anyway. Then I choose a space quiet enough that no random noises will come in and distract the listener and me. From that point on, it’s just me and that person. I try to resist the urge to say things like “Me too” or “I know how you feel” and instead just use my voice as a tool to listen even better, by prodding the subject with clarifying questions.

Listening takes patience and practice. The other component is making sure you’ve got the best audio possible. I spoke with Jason Levine about this, and I got some tips.

“The only time I was in a fight was when I was grabbed by a man, and I tried to fight him and I couldn’t. I don’t know about this romantic notion of what it is to be in a fight. But it’s not like you think.”—Nika Burnett for Stories from here.

When capturing audio, be very wary of ambient noise. Put your subject in a quiet room away from traffic, loud neighbors, and even air conditioning units and fans!

For audio capture, the iPhone’s native Voice Memos recorder actually captures brilliantly. Granted, it requires that the speaker (or someone else) hold it (and that it be well positioned for good capture), but I’ve used it countless times on videos as secondary audio, and it mixed in clean and clear.

If you want a little more control, there are of course a few options that add more-powerful microphones to the iPhone.

If you’re looking to attach a better mic to your DSLR or mirrorless camera, the Røde VideoMic Shotgun (a classic) still sounds pretty darn good (and is cheap, too); there’s also the newer VMGO Video Mic Go (which features a supercardioid polar pattern, so it’s better at picking up dialog), and it, too, costs less than $100. Both mount directly on your camera.

DON’T BE AFRAID TO STAND STILL AND WATCH HOW THEY REACT

“Why we’re so damned now is we’re realizing that the system was never built for us.”—James Bland for Stories from here (click on the image to watch the video portrait).

Video portraits have been the most difficult part of this process for me—partially because having a photographer’s mindset helps you establish shots but doesn’t help you understand motion, and partially because I incorrectly believed myself to have very steady hands.

Before I could even create a great video portrait, I had to remember the following three things: First, use a tripod as much as humanly possible—just get over it and use one. Second, once I set up a frame, the subject doesn’t know the focal length or aperture, so it’s super-important to set parameters for them in terms of movement. And lastly, just be quiet—use your eye contact to keep them engaged.

Once I hit record, each subject usually stays focused on the task at hand for about 15 seconds—until the pervasively awkward fact that they are being asked to stand or sit relatively still begins to settle in. They fidget, they relax, they look away, they stare into the frame and eventually at you—asking with their eyes if they are done yet. Fight through your desire to end their misery, and use your eyes to calm them. If that doesn’t work, try making them laugh or asking them to think about a complex math problem. Then just stand still and watch. Count to 60 in your head; then wait. Then wait more. Wait until you truly believe 10 seconds have passed in which they forgot you were recording and gave you a tiny glimpse into themselves.

ALLOW THE PERSON TO SEE HOW THEY ARE BEING PORTRAYED

Maybe it’s because I’m not a big name, but I’ve never really believed in this “Don’t show the subject what they look like when you’re shooting” concept. To draw as much truth as you can out of your subject, you need them to trust that you are capturing them well.

For me, this starts by shooting them after the interview. The act of listening helps build trust, and then allowing them to see as you work furthers that bond. The next step is explaining things to them and helping them understand what you’re doing and why, what you’re trying to achieve.

Then go ahead and shoot for a few minutes, and then share some portraits with them. After all, their stories are what has gotten you this far.

I write all of this not as an expert but as a student learning on the fly as he attempts to tackle the idea of proximity in his portraiture. Please feel free to see how my residency project is going by visiting storiesfromhere.com.