As I walked down Haight Ashbury Street in San Francisco, California about four years ago, I was trying out a new camera that I had purchased a while back. It was during a difficult time in my life and I needed to get outside to distract myself. I walked up to a young man sitting on the sidewalk with his friends, playing the guitar for money. After getting his approval, I sat on the sidewalk with him and as we talked I snapped away with my camera. I did not know how to use my Canon DSLR yet, so I put it on automatic controls. Without any thought about technique or lighting, I just did what felt natural to me. His buddies started teasing him because of the attention that I was giving him, which made him a little nervous and he began playing the guitar. I took a few pictures of his friends, before moving on.
I captured about a dozen portraits of homeless or displaced youth within an hour. It felt good to me, like I was reconnecting with something that had been important to me. I studied homelessness during my Masters Degree in Public Administration at San Francisco State University. I wrote my thesis several years ago on barriers preventing homeless children from staying in school in San Francisco. I also toured all of the homeless shelters in San Francisco and many in Alameda County to study the quality of care that these centers provided. I was most interested in what the patrons thought, calling one report, “Listening to the Homeless”.
I am long since away from academic study where I sought to understand and create solutions to homelessness. However, something switched on that day taking me back to face these issues, now differently, through the lens of a camera. I travelled to eleven European and American cities taking portraits of people who needed to ask for money in the street to survive. Some may have been homeless, others displaced in one way or another, all marginalized.
During this process, I discovered photographer Dorothea Lange who photographed people living in poverty during the American depression for the Farm Security Administration (FSA). Her photograph “The Migrant Mother” is one of the most recognizable photojournalistic photos in American history. (http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8b29516)
“This thing called social erosion. I saw it,” she commented during an interview in 1964. “I was active, interested and responsive.” Her images, along with those of her FSA colleagues, are said to have influenced American social reforms of the 50’s and beyond. I was captivated by how she captured the strength and dignity of the people in her images, despite their living conditions. I found her inspirational. She is one of the reasons why I decided to study photojournalism taking me to where I am now, working through my Master of Arts.
This brings me full circle and back to the practice of taking portraits, which was a required assignment during my first school term. After touring cities for two years taking spontaneous portraits without much thought as to practice, I was faced with taking posed portraits.I hit a bottleneck. Taking portraits did not come easy any more. Everything in this genre challenged me: posing the person, lighting, technical quality, etc. How could I spend two years traveling around randomly approaching strangers on the street to take their portrait and then feel paralysis when completing a school assignment?
Partly, I could not focus. My concentration was poor because I lost my mother just before this time. But I also needed to relax and not worry about what others thought. I needed to allow myself to get into flow and see what comes. Most of all, I needed to not judge myself. Of course, practice also helps. After stepping back for a few months and now practicing again, I am starting to enjoy portraiture.
A few of my colleagues kindly posed for portraits. I try to capture the confidence and zen that I once had when I was taking photographs of displaced persons and to have fun with it, be comfortable in the moment and to trust my instincts. I try to not overly control the moment, allowing for the personalities to show while paying attention to technical details to get a good shot right off the bat since I prefer minimal post processing.
I learn as I go along. I want more practice though.