Beyond a Single Image
“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.
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.
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.
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
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.