Sunday, October 17, 2010

Photographer-less Portraits

An idea I had for a school project a few months ago.

I wanted to explore the nature of the portrait, specifically the impact or effect the photographer has on the subject. I was coming from the point of view that there is no possible way a photographer can truly capture a person's essence because as soon as the camera is up, so is the sitter's guard, or the sitter's impulse to perform. So I tried to think of a way to remove the photographer from the equation, yet still take a photograph.

Also, I didn't want to just do a riff on surveillance and set up hidden cameras or something - for one thing, this theme has been explored enough in modern photography and popular culture (though I do find it really interesting). Besides, I wanted the person to be aware of the camera and the fact that they were going to have their photograph taken for a specific purpose; I just wanted to remove myself from the equation, from being there at the crucial moment.

So I came up with a basic process of self-removal. First, I asked the person if I could take their photograph for a project. Then, without attempting to move them from where they were or what they were doing, I set the camera up. I set the self timer (which on film cameras is always around ten seconds - I also like that the instruction manuals usually only ever say "approximately ten seconds"), making sure to focus it (approximately). Only then did I tell the person what I was about to do - that is, I pressed the shutter and ran out of the room, closing the door behind me to make sure the person knew they were alone. Then I waited for about fifteen seconds, and re-entered the room.

I abandoned the project only because I thought there wouldn't be enough scope to satisfy the narrow-minded project outline that was as (if not more) concerned with compositional variety as concept. But I like the idea, and will hopefully do some more. There were some good results, and plenty of variety of reaction. And there was a really nice feeling after having performed each one. When a photo of a person is taken on film, only the photographer has any idea of what the photograph looks like, and the subject will only find out when the film is printed and developed. With this method, the subject has the upper hand, knowing exactly what they were doing at the time of exposure. In this way the power of the photographer is almost completely removed, and the result is a surprise. I enjoyed giving up that power, giving up that feeling of encroachment that always happens when I point a camera at one of my friends. It's a known truth (isn't it?) that it's hard, almost impossible, to change a person. But stick a camera between your face and theirs and for a few seconds that person is different. Whether what comes out approaches reality or is mostly constructed depends on the person and maybe your relationship with them. I suppose it still represents a kind of reality; the reality of your relationships. But still, a photograph is only ever an approximation, never a universal truth.