Thoughts on Photography (Part 2: Portraiture)

A few years ago, I wrote about my relationship to photography for a class called Photography and Language with Bill Jenkins. I recently found the essay, and remembered how important it was for me to think through my practice as an artist. Following is part 2 of 4 sections. I’ll be posting the rest of the essay over the next week, so stay tuned!

Portraiture is a category that is especially complex. There is a photographer, the person who is photographed, and everything in between. Together, they create a representation of the subject—a representation that has no voice of its own. Its likeness yields itself to a reading that cannot contest. If an audience knows the image of the person photographed, they can compare the representation to reality, and deliberate its accuracy. If the depiction is of a person unknown, one can only create an identity collaged together from the identities of others, from stock characters, from themselves. Portraiture is delicate because it projects the identity of no one and fragments everyone in a picture. Yet upon looking at a portrait, we hope to connect with another human being, one that is not connecting back. We are projecting the identity of a fictional character onto a piece of paper. If we recognize the fragmented individual illustrated in a photograph, we imagine what we already understand of them, even if it is an image of ourselves. A photograph tells us nothing more of another person than how they might have looked for a brief moment in time.

I am both attracted to and disturbed by the delicacy of portraiture. It makes me feel like I am not the sole owner of an image (morose than the other types of photographs I take). Every portrait is a collaborative effort. A portrait is an offering from the subject. It is a willingness to allow someone else to create a visual representation of your own likeness and use it as they see fit. When I photograph someone, I feel like I am creating a small corpse of that person, one that will exist beyond his or her own entity. As the “operator”, I hope to represent them justly, if that is at all possible. I believe this comes from an effort to communicate on the part of the photographer, and open up the dialogue for collaboration. This is what draws the line for me, in many ways, between a successful and an unsuccessful portrait.

Recently, I came across an interview by Fazal Sheikh, a photographer widely known for his work in marginalized communities around the world. For his work, “A Sense of Common Ground”, he initially traveled to a Sudanese refugee camp with journalists and photojournalists, who latched onto the ‘story’ immediately. Sheikh, on the other hand, was intimidated by the thought of entering a culture that was unfamiliar to him. He understood the power that he had, and the Kenyan refugee’s vulnerable position, not only as the ‘other’, but as of a community recently caught in a feudal situation. Rather than projecting what he understood as the ‘story’, he addressed the elders of the community and utilized his personal experiences to relate to their situation. He was sensitive to their opinions and ideas. By returning some control to the subject, he was able to create images of these people in a way that does justice to their identity in a represented form.

I take photographs, first and foremost, for myself. However, when I take a portrait, I must remain conscious of the fact that I am interacting with another human being, one with an entirely different perspective from my own, and I must keep in mind that they have invested interests in the representation I make of them. More often than not, they allow me to take it because they believe I will do something purposeful with it (or at least I think that is the reason). Whether the people I photograph actually expect some kind of return from our encounter, I feel obligated to follow suit. There is an unspoken agreement between the person I photograph and myself that this event has happened with significance. Whether or not anyone expects this from me, I feel like I owe it to them. My photographs could not have happened without the individuals that contributed the progress of my work. They are the reality to my image, and for that I am contracted to making work that exists for more than an audience of open minds and behind closed doors. I want my work to exist on a level that is more than a document, and more than art. Like I said, I have high expectations.

I suppose this desire to use photography as some (impossible) vessel of meaning is derived from the fact that I choose to work within constructions of social relevancy. I try to photograph what cannot necessarily be represented visually, and the circumstances that I chose to take them in are crucial.  My portraits of young mothers do not mean the same thing without you knowing the relationship of two people in the frame. My photographs of Yuma do not carry the same message if you do not know I was born there, or what the social climate of this small border-city is. You can infer from the visual information that the photographs provide, but no truth exists from the mere image. I have no desire for my work to disseminate without critical context. The context is what drives me to make the photographs, and how I want to lead my audience through the work. One should not exist without the other, but I am unsure if the visuals and context are enough.