People Photography is a business of power relations. All the more reason to be kind.
Photography is a always a power play. You can easily observe this in the relation between a photographer and their model. Or in the precarious dignity of the subject in documentary photography. Fixing your camera’s gaze on them, makes your subject painfully aware of themselves and self conscious. That is why sometimes we get these awkward smiles we love so much or the tension around the mouth and eyes we portrait photographers fear.
I’ll let you in on a secret, however. This self awareness is exactly what you want. As paradoxically as it might sound at first, you want your model to be self aware. Now that they already think about themselves they are susceptible to your positive engagement. It is now up to you to direct their awareness to the things you appreciate about them, to what makes them beautiful in their own. I strongly believe that the way we choose to perceive the world has profound and perceivable impacts on our actions, including how we interact with our subjects. And I strongly believe that there are no real shortcuts to making kindness, appreciation and honest feedback a professional habit. That being said, there are a few things photographers do in order to train themselves and/or facilitate kind interaction. Give them a try and see what works for you. Because in the end you have to make this kindness your own.
Do the Chimp
Among photographers, chimping is rather frowned upon. Yet, chimping, when done in pairs, can be a very powerful tool. Taking a break from shooting by showing your model shots is much more than just a reviewing session. It is an opportunity to get a clear understanding of what works and what doesn’t. Which, in other words, is nothing but finding for yourself what you like about a person. This might be something about their physique, but more often than not it is something about the way they conduct themselves, the stories they inadvertently tell, the characters they portrait, or the way they hold their hand in this one picture. And once you figure that out, you can (and should) tell them about your discoveries. They will not know what hit them, being appreciated in this way! And this, really, is it: there’s hardly a better way for a photographer to build a relationship with their models than chimping in pairs and being genuinely interested.
Chimping is literally my fave part. It makes me trust the photographer (you look at the pics and think, ok, he knows what he’s doing. I can relax now and let him do his job. It’s going to be fine).
Having figured out what you appreciate in a person, you can now give much more meaningful directions, because you know what it is you want to show in your images. And having talked about it during your duo-chimp you can explain to your model why you give them these directions. Telling someone to push their chin forward and down will seem very strange to the uninitiated. Telling them you love how that chizels their contours, however, gives them an idea of what it is THEY are doing, which is a very empowering moment (believe me, I’ve had this very experience as a model, albeit an ugly one ;) ) Word of advice, though: don’t overexplain things. Been there, done that.
Listen to them
When talking about their images (be it images from a previous shoot, from their portfolio/private collection, or images from the current shoot), ask them what they like/dislike about an image. Again, this is a very empowering moment. The side effects are that you can start up a discussion about their features, and their wants, building a stronger relationship and showing them that you understand them, while still giving your perspective. Finally, of course, it will allow you to create images that excite your clients, because you know what they look for.
Don’t stop talking
I read this advice when I just started out in portraiture. Truth be told: it was ruinous for my first couple of shoots, because I thought it literally meant to talk the entire time. I found what often works well for me is to ask my models about their dreams and goals, their idols and what they find fascinating about them, and (of course) their celebrity crushes. Now, the main part to talking is this: do.the.f**k.listen! Every little details will help you connect to your model. Say you want them to smile. You can now crack a silly joke about their secret crush David Gandy. Or you want a rough intense look. Tell them to pretend to be Taylor Swift in Bad Blood staring down their adversary.
The Road goes ever on and on
Out from the door where it began.
– J.R. R. Tolkien
This is the most important one: just do it. Every journey starts with the first step, as they say. Unlike Bilbo & Frodo’s journey, however, kindness is not a destination but a path. You are never either kind or not. The only thing you can do, is act kind as often as you can.
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