Something to SAY

Legendary creative director John Doyle recently asked me to make portraits of kids who are working to overcome severe stuttering problems with the help of a nonprofit organization called Our Time, which John is rebranding as SAY: The Stuttering Association for the Young. I have an old friend who built a career as a top photojournalist despite a severe stuttering problem. From him I learned a lot about the challenges people who suffer from this disability go through and was so impressed by how he overcame his problem to succeed. Shooting kids is always a tough job. Even as a parent and someone who has always shot kids, I know from experience you can’t push things or try to control things too much. You have to be patient and open to the kid’s frame of mind, and try to connect. Essentially, you are a passenger on their train.

John said he needed a lot of portraits, all in one day to save money as the project was pro bono. In this case, we were talking about young kids but also teens. Which raises a whole host of other issues around self-esteem, identity, and general discomfort with self-image that are just part of the package of growing up. Add in a disability like stuttering, and I knew it might be tough to deliver the portraits I envisioned.

I wanted to connect emotionally with the kids and try to show their sense of pride and accomplishment for what they were overcoming. It was an exciting opportunity. John and I talked at first about photographing to seven or eight kids, then maybe 12 or more. I thought on the outside we could get to 15.

Then he asked if I could shoot 20 kids—in one day. Hey, I’m game for anything. But to connect with these kids and shoot a range of images in the time allotted with a limited crew and budget (the crew was paid) was a daunting thought, to put it mildly.

Then came the shoot day––big surprise: The kids came in and rocked the house. They burst into dance, they sang, they talked and talked. We had a blast! It was such a gift to meet them and be part of their world. And we got the 20 kids done, barely, as the natural window light faded and our studio time ran out. It seems the Our Time/Say program is working wonders with these bright kids. And I just got a lovely note from John thanking us and saying how happy everyone was with the pictures. It’s a project I’m extremely proud to have been part of.

Sunday
09
March 2014

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INSPIRATION #3: FACING THE OTHER

 

©2009 Lyle Owerko/CLIC Gallery

©2009 Lyle Owerko/CLIC Gallery

 

I’m torn sometimes between my core desire to capture moments and to create photographs. I’m also prone to seek the bliss of isolation after periods of intense work. I have to force myself to get out and see what’s going on, but I rarely regret it. So when I am knocked off my feet by such beauty as I recently saw at Lyle Owerko’s show of his project on the Samburu people of Northern Kenya at the CLIC Gallery in Soho I am inspired and overcome with the desire to rush out and do portraits. Lyle goes deep with these lyrical, sensitive portraits and the stunning large prints are hypnotic.

Clic Bookstore & Gallery – New York, St. Barth – ABOUT

In a related vein, Elisabeth Sunday’s AFRICA VI: The Tuareg Portfolios, 2005–2009 presents dramatic figurative portraits of the nomadic Tuareg from the Sahara Desert in Northern Mali, which I also find haunting, lyrical, mystical; they push my inner Jungian dreamscape blast-off button. And I’ve not yet seen these up close, but will next week.

Gallery 291

Back in the US, I was pulled in by Richard Rinaldi’s new monograph “Fall River Boys” from Charles Lane Press, which yields the stark, honest reality of young men coming of age in a struggling New England town. The work rises up and bites when you least expect it to. Eloquent, and also haunting and sad, the images are not without glimmers of dignity and determination as seen on the faces Rinaldi reveals with care.

Charles Lane Press | Fall River Boys

Inspiration alone is a pretty great thing, no?

But it’s deeper than that. I’m responding also to the search for the other, as these artists all seem to me to be pursuing in their own ways. By the “other” I refer to the stranger we encounter in our travels, or even in our own street. Through our understanding of the other, we define ourselves.  The famous journalist Rsyard Kapucinski discusses this phenomenon extensively in his posthumous book “The Other,” Verso, 2008, and refers to the great French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas who said “…the self is only possible through the recognition of the other.”

Through my own portraits on my travels I’ve noticed a continuing theme in my work over the years that explores this idea. In all my work, since I was a kid, I’ve been obsessed with images that could be called portraits but are made as street shots where the subject has momentarily looked into my lens as I was grabbing the moment––probably they were lost in thought while waiting in a line or while working or whatever––but they looked up at me as I pressed the shutter. There is an unguarded quality as if I have known them all my life and they are trusting me. It’s a lovely fraction of a second when defenses between strangers are down. I have the nerve to look the stranger in the eye and they are completely open to me in turn.

I’ve written a bit about this and how I see this as a search for my own identity and place in the world, and that’s about the size of it. Not at all a conscious effort, just part of what I’m doing. Which may be why the above artist’s work is so exciting and inspiring to me.

And by creating a photograph, as opposed to capturing a portrait as a moment, I mean a situation, most likely a portrait where I’m in dialog with the subject. I’m choosing the background, location and position of the subject, or a still life, or some other conceptual approach such as some of the fashion or advertising work I’ve done that may be more illustrative.

These really seem two sides of the same coin because even moments captured in camera are later partly “created” in terms of how I render the print in the darkroom, digital or wet. There the print becomes an expression and subjective interpretation of how I saw the image. While digital manipulation in terms of switching out heads or changing skies and whatnot is not my thing, burning and dodging is definitely another form of manipulation, and is something very important to me. Since your eye goes to the lightest areas first I can control where your eye moves around the image to yield a heightened emotional response. Some of this may be planned in the exposure and depth of field of course, but in the final print comes the full expression of the idea. And that leads to a discussion about the magic of the print… to be continued…

Tuesday
28
April 2009

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