Damn it man, I’m a photographer, not a model

Apologies, I could not resist the opportunity to paraphrase McCoy from Star Trek. Still, through various studio/portraiture-based workshops I have conducted and interactions with photographers, this line of thought is common. Typically the usual riposte I get when asking photography students to sit in front of the camera is on the lines of ‘I’m a photographer so I’m behind it not in front…!’

My line of reasoning then is telling them that to be a portrait photographer you must go through the process. You must understand what it is like to be in front of the lens and relinquish your power to another. And it is the power and control element that fundamentally drives a portrait photographer. Take note, they are in charge, dictating the lighting, the pose and the focus, then at a precise moment firing the shutter, capturing a moment that is theirs and theirs alone.

 ‘You must understand what it is like to be in front of the lens and relinquish your power to another.’

So why are photographers reluctant to pose in front of a camera, is it an awkward shyness, low self esteem, stubbornness or a fear of losing their mortal soul and having it trapped on a piece of celluloid or a JPEG file? Whatever it may be, get over it! We live in the most photographed period in history, with our image most likely captured daily without us knowing it. However when we are behind the camera we are in control so why would anyone want to give that up?

It’s through this notion of power and control that photographers are exploring alternative avenues of the portraiture process. By taping into other organic elements, they are exploring in a sense the idea of a controlled chaotic environment. They are letting go of some of their power yet they set the boundaries in which this chaos can take effect. Two such photographers have used audio and sound as stimuli and catalyst; by bringing in this other sensory element, the shifted power balance has allowed for some interesting and thought provoking modes of practice.

The first photographer is Bettina Von Zwehl in which her series ‘Alina 2004’ is the very embodiment of this organic process. In ‘Alina’ Zwehl has almost total control over her models, she positions them and carefully sets the environment to such a meticulousness degree. Yet the addition of a piece of music titled ‘Für Alina’ allows the sitter to become a listener, thus altering their reaction to the portrait process. The sitter is enveloped by a piece of music, which during the second part a sudden explosion of flash occurs capturing them at an unpredictable moment. The images portray a deep sense of emptiness; they have been stripped of identity and laid bare to reveal nothing. You question their mute state, wondering what has and possibly what will happen.

Now with Billy Hunt and his series ‘Scream Portraits’ taken with his ‘Screamotron 3000’ more control and power is given to the sitter, in which the only way their photo is taken is through the power of them screaming. Through a boom-box, a microphone and a trigger the person in front of the camera has to scream load enough to reach a certain decibel limit to enable the camera to fire. The images portray a very raw and energetic feel; the sitter is now caught in both audio and physical motion, frozen to reveal an escaping violence.

Through understanding or just knowing the process in which portraits are made, does it change our outlook on the perceived roles of photographer and model? Can we, or do we need to understand the complex social dynamics of this authoritative process or can we simply just enjoy looking at pictures of people.

To be continued…

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10 comments for “Damn it man, I’m a photographer, not a model

  1. 14 October 2013 at 1:09 pm

    I’ve never understood why anyone would have a problem facing a camera, yet I often get, “I don’t like my picture being taken!”, Why not? I ask, “I just don’t”, But you must have a reason, “No, I just don’t like it”. How can they not like something they can’t articulate the reason for? Does it hurt? Does it steal their soul? Of course not, they’re just following a growing trend, unless you’re a less than 30 something and then you’ll do a ‘selfie’ 30% of the time you make any image, talk about narcissism.

    Of course you need to know what it’s like in front of the camera as well as behind if you’re going to be able to be successful in controlling a portrait session, but how do you get the non-photographer to sit for you without resorting to abduction and compulsion?

    • Graeme Hoose
      15 October 2013 at 12:41 pm

      “Of course you need to know what it’s like in front of the camera as well as behind if you’re going to be able to be successful in controlling a portrait session, but how do you get the non-photographer to sit for you without resorting to abduction and compulsion?”

      Been doing some street/event photography recently documenting the local biker community… all shy retiring types till alcohol gets consumed , then once they see the “party” shots are a wee bit more than snaps I have been getting some to actually sit for a portrait. Leverage like that of some sort helps , and patience always does.

      It’s very much part of the craft getting a sitter to do what you want , so getting in front of the lens does help at learning how others do it. But nothing beats trying it your self. sometimes it’s a leap out of faith and way out of your comfort zone, which is exciting. I need to do this myself as I am part of the community I am shooting so it’s easier but I have another set of subjects in mind and still working out how to approach them.

  2. 14 October 2013 at 4:19 pm

    I think the answer is remarkably simple…they don’t approve of the way they look in photographs. There may be innumerable reasons for this but mostly they are culturally/socially based but also have an element of visual mismatch between the photograph and the laterally inverted image in the mirror…a bit like the shock at hearing a recording of your own voice for the first time.

  3. 14 October 2013 at 5:01 pm

    I’m currently working on a portrait project with four artists – three female and one male. When I approached them all of them agreed to cooperate in the project, I told them it was about projected identity, it wasn’t a difficult negotiation. However in the time immediately before their individual first sessions the women artists all began to talk about appearance – I will emphasise, completely unprompted – which made me reconsider the project and about how I approached the project. The male artist didn’t seem to be bothered at all about representation. These were all painters and not photographers – I wonder if that made a difference? By the way – they all would have posed towards the lens if I had so insisted….
    The whole process of portraiture is a negotiation between artist and subject, I know student Keith Greenough had done some work with the un-posed portrait, which I think is very interesting, certainly as a concept, but I’m still with Barthes: I believe the sitter adopts a mask when in front of a portraitist and, maybe as Peter says above, they have concerns about how that mask represents them.

  4. 14 October 2013 at 8:38 pm

    A loving muse is all we seek…

    Indeed the familiar of the reflected self is easier to comprehend than the actual outward representation that is captured. I experimented with this for a small project just by flipping peoples portraits to see if they felt more at ease.

    It does seem to be a phenomena localised with photographers, perhaps, more so with digital capture and its instantaneous feedback that some people find unsettling.

    Barthes is always a winner with me and the masks that people adopt especially when a camera is present has almost become as common a reflex as blinking. Unconsciously hardening and hiding behind a veneer. There are though ways around this, the old trusted shooting from the hip technique and I recall there were some Brighton based artists a few years ago that explored the process of photographing through two-way mirrors.

  5. Graeme Hoose
    15 October 2013 at 12:34 pm

    As a photographer I am guilty of “taking control” in a portrait situation. I will always adjust the pose slightly myself… even in a photo booth for a passport photo I will take one lot check the lighting then adjust position for the “real” ones. Is it me wanting to portray a different me or is it me controlling how the world should see me?

    I think it is just an inevitable wish to control an image… something we are all guilty of either of ourselves or others.

    But when we move into the realm of the self portraiture is it the same reasoning? Do the likes of Cindy Sherman, photographers who take on the roles of the sitter and the shooter, act in separate roles to do this?

    • 15 October 2013 at 12:46 pm

      It’s the realm of self portraiture that I will be discussing next, looking at the roles and intended audience of such autobiographical ladened images.

  6. 15 October 2013 at 10:48 pm

    A number of photographers, for instance the social documentarist Jean-Louis Courtinat, get to know their subjects well before they even take out a camera.

    Much portraiture is inevitably posed. Surely it is about understanding power and control rather than assuming it?

    Rapport with a subject is two way …

    • Graeme Hoose
      15 October 2013 at 10:56 pm

      I like your phrase more than the way I expressed it “Surely it is about understanding power and control rather than assuming it?”

      Another similar consideration is that it’s both the sitter and photographer establishing an accord where power is transferred or the skill is in engineering that position.

  7. CliveW
    17 October 2013 at 6:39 pm

    Photographers don’t want to be photographed because they know how devious photographers are.

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