Portraits

SF 36

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”.

SF 50I 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.

Geneva 77     SF 38Florence 86

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.

1G5A0019

10-6972

8 - RRD-7523

I learn as I go along. I want more practice though.

Just for fun

21-7316

17-7289

22-7318

Days like last weekend when I took a walk along the lake on a sunny day in Geneva with my camera, keeps photography fresh for me; it awakens the simple pleasure of it. Perhaps it is like yoga for someone else or relaxation meditation to another. Sometimes I just need to get away from the structure of school and enjoy the medium, by just getting into the flow.

I still contemplate little details. Maybe more so, because by relaxing the thoughts also flow. For example, I observe people’s response to me. Each country is different in this way, and it differs by season.

In Geneva during summer, when people are happy and warm, with friends and family or sunbathing on their own, they don’t seem to notice a person around with a camera. I can float around pretending to be invisible and playing my own private game of “I spy” or “hunt and seek” looking for moments – pieces of humanity.

I try to be respectful. If there is a very private moment between two people of course I walk away. I also, by example, won’t photograph nude sunbathing that is traditionally found in some European sunny water spots such as by the lake at Bain des Paquis in Geneva either. My thinking overall is simply to go by the golden rule, “do unto others….”.

Now in winter, it is a different game. People can be grumpy and sensitive, maybe because it can get persistently grey and dark in these parts. I get the occasional intense stare just walking by with my camera. What goes on in my mind is, “yes, I know, winter sucks”. So, I get it and I try to not make someone’s day worse by my presence, thinking “there are an infinite number of pictures to be taken, do I really need to take this one?” I take measure of what it is worth to me and I listen to my intuition.

I would have a different set of rules if I were photographing a demonstration or event of public concern. I would take the necessary pictures that communicate the event in play. By example, it was important that people knew about the blatant inhumane abuses taking place during the civil rights movement in America. One would have to be daring in this case, because it was important that people learned of the human dimension of this time.

Clearly there is occasion where the rules of photojournalism are different than that of a gentle stroll around lovely Geneva. Sadly, people can become immune to their surroundings and of human suffering. Photojournalism can bring these issues to light.

I have been thinking about who I want to be as a photographer ever since MA Course Leader, Paul Lowe asked us in a lecture –  “What do you want to be known for?/What do you want to represent as a photojournalist?” I see this self-awareness coming to me naturally. I imagine some day that it will just be obvious. I will differentiate a certain niche if I let myself be drawn towards what compels me, feels natural that I take part in, and somehow takes forward my own mix of personal experiences and knowledge of the world.

So far that has been the case. I photograph what is interesting or fun for me and I try not to question my motivation too much. I will need a larger body of work though for my own niche to present itself to me.

I will produce a few personal projects going forward in addition to what is expected of me in school. I learn loads during tutorial and from professor feedback, each time I take on an assignment. But, it is equally important for me to step away from time to time and take the brakes off, have total creative freedom and no time pressure for my own creative outlets. It also helps me to find my way as a photographer. I choose projects that are manageable. They give me the chance to compartmentalize my more practical challenges, like mastering the camera technically, exploring the use of lighting for affect, trying out different genres, etc.; failing in some things so that I may achieve in others. Basically, I am slowly discovering the landscape of my strengths and weaknesses.

There is no shortage of what I want to photograph. I see myself nurturing many projects for years; marinating them as I please, exhibiting from time to time and publishing as it feels appropriate and when they are received well enough. I would also like to publish a few photo books over time. As the hardcopy book becomes obsolete by publication of e-versions, they may also become more special as a tangible object of creativity.

On my personal list for now:

Exploring my maternal family roots in Scotland: Compose photojournalistic and archival family photography into a stills, audio and video montage, documenting my own personal journey through Scotland. It would be great fun to spend three months or more simply traveling on my own and documenting where this trip takes me. This one requires travel and time and so it is more of wishful thinking at this point. Maybe some day.

Opera. Illustrate an opera singer training for a performance including video, photography and voice overlay in a multimedia montage. We will start shooting within the next two weeks.

Dylexia: Explore the personal perceptions, problem solving skills and life philosophies of people with dyslexia. I have skype interviewed a few people with dyslexia who are willing to participate.

Every photograph we take is a self-portrait

“Every photograph someone takes is also a type of self-portrait reflecting them, because each contains information about the person who made it. Its visual contents metaphorically represent what was important enough to the photographer’s eyes at that moment that they chose to freeze it permanently. Even though they may well not be in that picture themselves, every step of choosing where, when, who, how, and why to take any photograph says as much about its creator as it does about the subject matter being recorded on film.” (Photo Therapy centre online)

Do you prefer photography in black and white or color? Do you interact directly with your subject or are you passive and contemplative taking pictures from afar? What colors are you drawn to? What do you find yourself photographing the most by choice? What symbols come up most often in your pictures – water, trees, families, buildings, flowers, animals?

What do these things mean? Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, among others, have deliberated symbolic meaning. A trained psychologist could certainly reflect. But, we may also find that the answers lie within ourselves. It may be obvious or we may feel like we know the right meaning for certain things, when inspiration strikes.

Each photo that you take is a narrative about you – it reveals you. Our photography reflects the nature of our personalities, the baggage we bring from our life experiences, our mood of that day and what is most on our mind at that time in our life. Taking the photo is also one way to reconcile our emotional state, like how a dream brings to our attention those issues that are buried in our subconscious.

If we look closely enough at our own portfolios, we can learn a lot about ourselves. Self-awareness may also affect our work as photojournalists – if we have the courage to face the good and bad that is in ourselves we can manifest it creatively and honestly.

I am interested in this academic discipline that bridges psychology and photography because I see it as a possibly overlooked influence for the meaning of our work. Can we assess representation, ethics, context, technicality, and finally outcome, without also considering the inner narrative of the photographer as an influence?

This comes to mind as I analyze photography of persons with disability, by example. The thought of disability may cause a visceral reaction for some. It may be compassion, or misunderstanding, bias, memory, inspiration, or maybe fear of one’s own vulnerability. These feelings could influence how a person photographs someone with disability by manifesting their own issues onto the final photo through projection of their bias.

I may take this interest to a practical level and explore it in photojournalism. It is one of the ideas I am considering during my next term either to integrate into my photographic practice or through academic exploration. I am still finding my way for this how it could be manifested through photo reportage or composition, but it could be interesting to try either now or at a later time.

One reference for more information about the multifaceted approach of photo therapy can be found at this link.

http://www.phototherapy-centre.com/home.htm

Practice assignment #3 ‘Relationships’ – Geneva food service

1G5A7427

10,000-Hour Rule, according to Malcolm Gladwell, suggests that it takes 10,000 hours of dedicated and deliberate focus to truly master a skill. For a photographer, that may mean 10,000 unique photo-shoots, or as many pure hours of repetitive practice. Add to that reading, studying, learning from others, and trolling the web, history books and publications for photographic excellence as a marker, and the hours multiply. Within that chasm lie trial and error, frustration, failure and success. It is a long journey. For me, well worth it, but it means having good days and bad days and struggling to learn from both.

For this assignment we are capturing dynamics in relationships, between people and how they interact, but also how people may respond to their environment. We remain restricted to black and white, manual controls, with a limited lens range. I went with a fixed hyper focus of 35mm and intended to keep it in the range of F22, but found myself needing aperture more around F10 for the inside conditions. I did take ISO up to 1600.

I secured approval in advance to photograph at the food bank through the Executive Director for the overseeing non-profit agency. He assured me it was fine, that I was welcomed and added that I may even return as many times as need be. We knew each other from before, from when I put together a fundraiser to benefit the food bank a few years ago. On this day, a local church was volunteering to put it on.

On the whole, it was an off day for me. I lost about 75% of pictures taken that otherwise could have been interesting if I had been able to execute them effectively. When I look through the viewfinder I have a composition in mind. But, I don’t always have the technical skill to fully achieve it (yet), at least in manual control. Yet, despite my challenges using manual controls I am starting to prefer it for when I do achieve what I want – because it gives more creative control.

I see myself in that frustrating first 1,000 photographic hours of the learning process. I am impatient to get better.

This scene was challenging for me in other ways too, however. Many people who require food services in Geneva do not want to be seen there. One man said that his family is not aware that he needs it and he especially did not want his picture posted. In all, five people very clearly asked not to be photographed, but at least a few others gestured in a way that might be interpreted that way as well. I assured all of them that their pictures would not be taken or posted. In my final set, I deleted images including these people in particular (if they accidentally got into the frame) to respect their wishes. This narrowed the output significantly, and as the room filled up it became more difficult not to include one of these individuals in any picture. Eventually I left, even before food service ended, because I did not want to make people uneasy and I sensed that by being there that I did. In the end, very few pictures came out anyway because the lighting was fairly dark and there was rapid movement almost constantly; difficult for me with manual controls.

What did I learn today? I did not feel relaxed. Perhaps if I had taken a swim before I would have done a better job. I am a better photographer when I feel centered, focusing, having fun, and when also mingling, more than I did here. I was not as social with people at the scene today as I normally am. For example, the last time that I volunteered at the food bank some patrons invited me over to join them for lunch and I walked around and got to know people there more.

So, going into it with an open mind and a good mood makes a world of difference, maybe a swim beforehand, and of course, practice.

Practice assignment #2 for street photography: Geneva walkabout

1G5A5035For the third and final set of the second assignment to take street photography, I simply walked around Geneva: From Right Bank to Left, across Mont Blanc Bridge and down rue de Confederation, over to Place Neuve, through and around Plainpalais and back again to the Right Bank, ending at Bains des Paquis. I went out several times, sometimes stopping at the train station to photograph people en route and other times just sitting in Place des Nations, at a cafe or spending time at the Geneva farmers market on Sunday and waiting for a moment to photograph. Sometimes I was literally moving when I took the picture, other times I was waiting in the moment, appreciating the calm and seeing it like a form of meditation or relaxation.

I thought a lot about how I approach photography and how it affects others being photographed. Normally, for ad hoc situations that are in the public realm, if I see something of artistic or photojournalistic value and if there is no ethical reason not to take the picture, then I proceed to photograph. If I sense tentativeness on the part of a person, I either shift my focus elsewhere, move on or ask if it is okay (sometimes verbally, or maybe with eye contact for reassurance). I also keep in mind that I can choose not to publish it later if I question it in the aftermath or if someone specifically requests this. Bottom line, I do my best to in any given moment, take measure of my comfort and theirs, and follow through accordingly. There are still many times when all arrows point forward, when I still feel tentative and hesitate to take the shot, perhaps due to inexperience, being in discovery of my own parameters and boundaries, or by some shyness on my part.

What I have come to realize is that my demeanor directly affects how the person being photographed responds. If I am sheepish and unsure, the person I am photographing tends to be suspect. However, when I am calm and friendly, conspicuous but gentle in my approach and respectful, and above all having my own internal sense that I belong there – then on the whole the person being photographed responds positively. I can see these reactions in the body language and expression of the people in my pictures. Such as on my off days, people seem physically closed and colder to me. But when I feel self-confident and relaxed, connecting with the people or the place and being mindful, the outcome is more positive and warm. I also have more fun when I relax into the moment. I engage with people, talk with them, hear their stories, tap into my own enjoyment of photography, and as I go along casually but thoughtfully snap away with my camera. Essentially, I see a psychological framework in photography by the perspective of the photographer and by the response of the individual being photographed. We all have different motivations, convictions and insecurities that are brought out by photography.

Perhaps you will see this psychology reflected in my images for this assignment. Some days I felt off where I did not see creative opportunity, did not seem to connect with people or place, and where I had less success with the camera controls. Other days I felt that I was being received positively, plus also felt good and centered, and normally in this good place my technicality improves too.

As with the other assignments, I used all manual controls, black and white, fixed lens (this time 28mm) with limited ISO, although I took it up to 1600 at times indoors. I am embarrassed to say that I only now discovered how to use my meter for exposure, but this one learning advance has made a difference for me in better premeditating the coordinated controls for ISO, exposure, F-stop to what I want to achieve.

Practice assignment #2 for street photography: Paddy’s Pub

Paddy's Pub in France

Paddy’s Pub in France

Paddy’s Pub is the village meeting place in Ferney Voltaire, France. I used to frequent it for dinner with my partner when I lived there locally. Families with their children, after-work crowd, locals, expats, all go there. Both English and French are spoken and it has a friendly vibe with occasional live music.

I first approached the bar owner and the two servers for permission to take pictures and they encouraged me to go ahead. At first, all three were shy, but they soon warmed up and started having fun being photographed and made conversation with me during my time there. As for the patrons, the majority tolerated being photographed and a few even walked up to me and asked about what I was doing and offered to buy me a beer. One woman politely asked not to be photographed, and finally one other woman was adamant about not being photographed. I assured the concerned woman on three occasions that she would be in no photos, but she acted bothered by me being there. Since her two friends were friendly, posing for the camera and having fun, and even offering me a beer, she let it go.

Like the other assignments, I was required to photograph in manual controls, black and white, with a limited ISO and a fixed lens no higher than 50mm.

I chose 28mm for this assignment. And for this setting, I was allowed to go as high as 1600 ISO, which was necessary in this dark bar. I tried using hyper focus pre-set of 28mm at F16, but found that a lower F-stop was needed if I was going to achieve an acceptable exposure. Yet, if I took the F-stop too low it made it challenging to get a clear picture. Therefore, I often opted for the darker picture but clearer image technically.

Practice assignment #2 for street photography: Ferney Voltaire farmer’s market

1G5A4441 adjusted for exposureThe French village Ferney Voltaire rests just over the border from Geneva. Like many expats, I lived there for several years while working in Geneva. I now live in Central Geneva, but Ferney Voltaire still occasionally draws me into France for its weekly Saturday morning farmer’s market. It lays out in one big loop lined with stalls of fruits and vegetables, fresh pasta, fresh fish or meat, bread and flowers. Normally, as I walk from stall to stall, the vendors ask me how I am doing, offer me samples of their product and remember me from before.

As I walked around the market with my camera this weekend, I found people reticent about having their picture taken. Some looked at me inquisitively and a few graciously and politely asked that I stop taking their picture. It was not fully embraced, but was tolerated. In one instance, a man aggressively chastised me to stop taking pictures that included him. He was twice my size and I suspect he was intoxicated, so it was a little intimidating. In any case, I respected his wishes and moved on from that spot and I posted no pictures where he happened to be in the frame. This experience in general is different than in San Francisco, my hometown, where people seem drawn to the camera, even vying for the shot.

I took all pictures in pre-set hyper-focus by the advice of my professor. This made a difference for the clarity of the shots, all of which were produced at 28mm, F/16 and 400ISO, black and white pre-set, and in manual mode, which also fell within the parameters of the school assignment. I still struggle to predetermine the correct exposure, which I achieved only by trial and error.