After having worked with portrait models for a little less than a year I would like to write about my approach and my experiences.
When I shoot portraits I am currently limited to outdoor areas because I don’t have a studio and no lighting equipment. Apart from depending on the weather this does not seem a major disadvantage to me. I can work with natural light and using the streets and parks for shooting certainly works for me. I would still like to have a place where I can create light and where I can set the atmosphere and have shooting conditions that I can determine myself. Maybe a little later, currently I travel so much between Greece and New Zealand that it does not make sense to have a studio in one place anyway.
But I mainly wanted to write about working with models. I currently only work with people that are no professional models. They are people that I either find in the streets or friends or acquaintances of mine. In other words, my models have only limited or no shooting experience which means that I should direct them and tell them what to do and how to pose. And exactly that I don’t do. Very purposefully I don’t give them directions as to how to move, to strike a pose or to show a certain facial expression. The reason is that I am interested in finding out who my models are as a person and I am trying to capture this person when I shoot. Poses or directions would only distract and lead us away from my goal.
I tell my models before the shooting that I am not going to tell them what to do and how to behave. Instead of giving instructions I start having a talk with them. I ask them about their lives, about ideas, attitudes, things that they love or dislike. And I tell my story, tell them who I am, what I do, how I have developed my photography. It often develops into an exchange of experiences, of life stories and opinions. I learn a lot about my models and I love getting to know them a little.
I do tell my models where I want us to go, where I think the light is good and what kind of backdrop I like and want to shoot them in. But from the moment we find a place it is mainly a situation of interaction and shooting the model during this interaction. A disadvantage is that during talking faces are very difficult to shoot, often features are distorted or eyes half closed. So I need to wait for little breaks between the interaction. This is actually nice because often I find that emotions from the last topic or sentences remain in the faces of my models which enhances their facial expression.
It often is also interesting to watch with the camera what a person is doing with a certain situation. A few days ago I went with my model Ioanna to a long open air stairs in the neighborhood of Exarchia in Athens. From the stairs you have a look from above over a part of Athens. Ioanna sat down on the stairs spontaneously and watched the city with a kind of far away glance in her eyes. This coincided nicely with the talk we had about her traveling and living in many different places. And the pictures that I could take had a very special and particular mood.
Keeping the situation open and letting the model develop within this situation is something that I like very much. We create a little human laboratory situation where the interaction between photographer and model and the environment become the basis for visual story telling.
Is it possible to grasp “the essence” of a person in a single picture? The question is more if we can even talk about “the “ essence of a human being. Every situation, every social interaction evokes a particular atmosphere which influences the mood of a model and his or her facial expression. Yes, there are recurring traits of character that we can try to find and to depict. But reducing a person on one single picture appears to be very difficult and even a bold task to me. However, maybe that will change if I develop more experience over the time.
During one photo shoot I take between 200 and 300 pictures of my model in different locations. I take about two hours for this task, a time that my (unpaid) models are usually willing to dedicate to the experience. Later when culling, curating and processing the pictures I reduce the number to 10 to 15 pictures that I process. After the processing I send the final JPEG versions of the images to my models via WeTransfer, together with a big thank you.
I find the human interaction between myself and my models interesting and fascinating. This allows me to dip into the lives of people that I don’t know and have never met before. And it appears that even sometimes some lasting relationships or friendships can develop. This experience is at least as important as the photographic one and the pictures that we can create together.