Today is the same as every other day since lockdown. Nothing. Boredom. No, boredom is not the right word. There is the frustration of not knowing when I’ll be able to do what I do again. I’m a portrait photographer, and my daily life, my work, my normal routine is to meet a complete stranger and then build a rapport with them. Part of the challenge of this work is to get to know someone in a short amount of time. It can appear superficial but the experience can also be quite intimate. This is usually the first time we meet but we don’t just talk about the weather. I am trying to capture a moment, to find the moment they are just being themselves. We talk about their feelings, their hopes and dreams, fears and insecurities. I try to see something that they don’t see when they look in the mirror. And then that all came to a halt.
So here we are. Here I am. I take pictures of faces and I’m the owner of the only three-dimensional face within these four walls. So I began to get back to work. All other self portraits I’ve taken have been predicated on a technical exercise. When I take a picture of a stranger I am reacting to them and they are reacting to me, and I just can’t do that with myself.
What use is my camera? Everything I see in the online photography community is about what to do to stay creative. Trying out techniques is all well and good, but that is not the bit I miss. I miss capturing something new and unexpected, unforeseeable. And when you shoot a self portrait you can’t do that. I’ve shot loads of self portraits just to remind myself how it all works. Is this just a technical exercise? How can I replicate the most crucial part of my craft – the interpersonal interaction – when I’m the only one here? How can I capture something spontaneous when there is nothing and no one to react to? You can’t tickle yourself, you can’t make yourself laugh, there’s no way to genuinely react. And so after shooting lots of self portraits that were intended as technical exercises, I hit on the idea of using a longer exposure because it introduces an aspect that I can’t control. The expressions will be blurred, it’s not going to be one thing or another.
During this shoot, I took lots of frames with one-second exposures. Many of them were unusable. With so many shots, I was unable to look at a single picture and know exactly what I was thinking at that moment. In the space of one second I could have had a number of different thoughts. When I speak to my clients, I know they will react and go through an emotional arc and I’m looking for the moment that most speaks to me. I can’t replicate that with myself. I have a picture where I look happy because I decided that, I have a picture where I look thoughtful, because I decided that. When talking to my clients, I am comfortable with uncertainty. When I am the subject, I often stop myself before trying. I preemptively judge an idea and it can be dismissed even before it’s arisen. It’s difficult to pull the rug out from under yourself.
In this portrait, the image is ambiguous. You can see enough of my facial features to be able to read some expression or emotion. But the interpretation is up to you. And that was what I needed – to create something open to interpretation.
So here I am now. Lockdown for me has heightened my awareness about what I enjoy most in my work. While I dearly love the technical part of photography and continue to be fascinated by production and post-production techniques, what it really comes down to is connection; the experience of spending a dedicated amount of time with a human being. The artistic community will adapt, it’s what we do. But what interests me now, is not how we adjust to the requirements of screens, masks, and temperature scans, but the evolution of human interaction and finally being able to see each other face to face, again.