In this recent blog post, we discussed the ins and outs of capturing the “things” of a place: photographing its geographic features, its buildings and its intentional and unintentional objects. In photographing place, these “things” form a stage upon which we strut and fret our respective hours. Capturing the details of that stage is important, but if one hopes to convey a full sense of a human place, then capturing the people playing upon that stage is even more important. We must photograph the people to show the place, but who do we photograph and how do we do it?
The most elementary of decisions is selecting the who to photograph, a task that mirrors the task of selecting the what to photograph in the realm of geography and things. From the hundreds of people in the small town, to the tens, hundreds, thousands and even thousands of thousands in hamlets, villages and cities small and large, a photographer must decide which people best convey the sense of place they inhabit. The choices are myriad. From business leaders to blue collar workers, from youth to elders, at work and at leisure, the photographer must choose who to photograph to capture the people of a place.
The easy cases are essentially place-specific. To illustrate the point, consider the shrimper on the Louisiana gulf and the subway operator in New York City. Each conveys an essential component of the place he inhabits, particularly when shown in their respective environments (that is, shown “doing their thing”). But locales are not inhabited solely by their distinctive characters. They are also inhabited by the mundane and universal range of humanity, the usual cast of characters found across regions. Virtually all local populations encompass school teachers and waitresses, police officers and sanitation workers, and doctors and merchants, among countless others. This cast is as intrinsic to place as are the archetypal characters, but less obviously reflective of it. The photographer must therefore decide which of these supporting characters to photograph – in addition to the conspicuous archetypes – if she is to more completely capture place.
Beyond deciding who to photograph, a photographer must decide how to photograph them. The how is, in large part, a question of candid photograph versus portrait, with a third, hybrid option falling somewhere between. (Of course, the photographer also must treat her subjects with truth, accuracy and respect, discussed in this blog post.)
Candid photos are those that capture subjects un-posed and in the ordinary course of daily life. Importantly, the subjects of candid photographs are, in the literal sense, unconcerned with the camera. Whether or not they know the camera is trained on them, candid subjects “pay it no mind” and continue about their activities. Candid photographs thus depict human subjects as they ordinarily are, without airs or self-consciousness. The resulting images portray an inherently natural human experience.
Diametrically opposite of candid photograph is the portrait, whether taken in the studio or in the field. The people photographed, exactly unlike those photographed in candid photographs, are self-consciously concerned with and aware of the camera in front of them. In a fundamental sense, portrait subjects knowingly engage with the camera. Portraits are thus artificial. Yet while they cannot naturally capture real daily life, portraits do provide a photographer with the opportunity to establish a relationship, deep or transient, with the people she is photographing. To the extent that a photographer captures that relationship in her photographs, the viewer of the photograph can experience something of that relationship. The photographer thus acts as a proxy for the viewer in the interpersonal relationship with the subject. Indeed, the most captivating portrait photographs are gratifying precisely because they embody and channel the human connection between photographer and subject. Portraits thus form an important part of depiction of place because they provide an interpersonal connection to the inhabitants of place in a way candid photographs cannot.
Finally, the third, middle ground type of photograph may be termed the “camera-aware candid” or “spontaneous portrait.” These photos capture a subject in the midst of his ordinary activities – just as with candid photographs – but in a moment when the subject was spontaneously aware of and interacting with the camera, most often making eye contact with it. These photographs combine some of the best attributes of both candid and portraiture photography: manifesting the naturalness of candid photography along with the human connectedness of portraiture. As a result, the viewer gains a glimpse into the day to day life of the photograph’s subjects, while providing an opportunity for the portrait’s human connection. The effect is often a heightened tension between viewer and subject, imbuing the photo with a particular power often lacking from either straight candid or portraiture photography.