Looking, Seeing and Listening

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Recently I have been thinking about how important it is, to listen to the people I photograph. I read a review of Vanessa Winship’s book ‘She Dances On Jackson’ by Jorg Colberg on his Conscientous site (you can read it here). He describes Vanessa’s portraits in a way I hadn’t thought of before – that she had listened to her subjects. This stuck in my mind. As a photographer I am busy looking. I look  until I see something, something that I think I might be able to capture to make a photograph. But ‘listening’ – that is exactly the word that describes to me the next stage of making a portrait.

I then went to a talk by photographer Jim Mortram in which he described his own process of making portraits. Jim visits people in their own homes and sits down with them, gets them to talk about themselves – and he listens. He often does this without taking any photographs. So this idea of listening to people has been present when I am making portraits.

I know that I am not a spontaneous person. When I am preparing for a shoot I visualise how the portrait might look. Whilst I think it helps to have a starting point, bringing too many preconceived ideas to a photograph can be detrimental. I have witnessed how I can get so involved in trying to make the picture, that’s in my head; I miss the wonderful nuances that other people can bring to the photograph. The very elements that can make a portrait, and the details that I could not have imagined. These missing moments have lead me to strive to adapt to each person and situation and above all listen to people.

These two portraits are photographs that I never expected to make. I went to photograph Liz and her baby Ione for my book Generation Pink. In the middle of taking pictures Ione needed a feed, so we took a break. I asked Liz if I could take a photograph of her feeding and I’m glad I did, as in this frame Liz’s expression is very different from the others. Her face softened as she looked at Ione. Below is Liz’s son Felix. I knew his favourite colour was pink, but I have found it difficult to get a good portrait of a boy who likes pink, but there he was dressed in a pink t-shirt with a pink bedroom wall, that I didn’t know he had. There was no time for preconceptions.

I have only just got these scans back from the lab, so they are not final images yet and I still have another roll to look at. I don’t know, at this stage whether they will make it into the edit, but I am happy to be listening more and seeing where that takes me.

Many thanks to Liz, Felix and Ione.

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