Reader Thread: How Should a Photographer be Present?

In your portraits, there is a space between you and the protagonist, space that leaves the place for the connection with the soul, which reveals the intensity of it. I believe this requires a certain skill, a skill to be present but not intrusive, to be guiding but at the same time to let it go... I still struggle with being able to do that, to find this ”space.” It's so complicated to guide the process but still let it be natural. There is so often a stiffness or do you deal with it?

A reader on my recent post about photographing a young Iraqi refugee asked a question I would like to get into more deeply. She wanted to know how to make a deeper connection with a subject, and how to be present but not intrusive.

First, I would like to discuss the notion of having a connection with a subject. It’s not something I believe is important or subscribe to because within my own practice I have measured the success of my photographs against it. When I feel I have a legitimate affinity with the person I am photographing, often spending hours with them, the portrait can still fail. Photographing family and friends is often harder than photographing strangers, despite a deep connection and shared history. Other times I have made what I consider a successful portrait without much interaction or personal investment at all. 

It sounds unromantic to strip my portrait process down to mere methodology, but it's a methodology that serves the photograph. I choose a background; I choose a light source, natural or introduced; I watch and observe and sometimes direct a pose. The final image is the confluence of these intellectual decisions, not a connection with the subject. 

There has been a mythology in photography around capturing the soul and seeing the truth of somebody. I don't believe it.

It's of course about the individual I am photographing too. They have to be willing and engaged, but having your image taken is your own journey and it can’t be forced. I don’t see the interaction as a deep connection between photographer and sitter; it’s a process where the photographer facilitates the sitter to find their own space. I try not to think about it as if I am extracting an image, but more like I am cultivating one. I am intently manipulating the environment to create a place for the sitter to find their own space—a moment that is transcendental to their daily life.

But of course, sometimes I fail. And when I do, I have learned from it.

What do you think? How do you push through awkwardness when photographing a subject?