A series about portraiture and life at large - Part I (Part II can be found here)
In photographing portraits it's all about capturing the person herself or himself. It's actually a long story, and I won't make it short. Instead I'll cut it into pieces so as to be able to entertain both of us with this subject over the coming weeks.
Last week I was photographing kids in a kindergarten for two days, shooting their daily life and of course them as individual persons as they were going about with their business. I will most likely get back to this, but what is interesting with kids - and all of us - is that when the surroundings are safe and allow you to be who you are, grow your talents and offer you help to learn whenever you need it, you grow as a person and become an individual.
Kids in the kindergarten going about with their business; studying earthworms which they have given the name of Emma
As a striking contrast to this kindergarten and the very individual kids in it, I took a walk and passed by a parking lot that was extraordinary in the way that it consisted of a few hundred cars that were all middle class cars, surrounded by a nice fence and surveillance cameras. The sight was so extraordinary that I actually stood still to check if there wasn't just a tiny single car that was sticking out in colors, had a bit of rust, bumps or fancy tires. But no, they were all extraordinary dull cars in that you really wouldn't notice them, nor have anything against them.
Out of curiosity I had to walk around the building complex to see who owned hat parking lot, and it was Lundbeck, the producer of Cipralex antidepressants. You know, if you feel depressed, take one of those killers.
The times are changing
Most of us remember back when we talked about what was on the tube last night at work, in school or at social gatherings. Today I know a great deal of people who don't even bother to own a television. Some even have pride in definitely not owning one. The CEO of Bang & Olufsen said back in 1995 that the biggest threat to their line of luxury televisions were not the other television producers but the content being aired. "Who want a television if all they send is crap," he noted. A future that lay closer than he thought then.
In this Facebook age we can connect to a few old friends from school and perhaps friends from our old neighborhood. And we might meet in real life for a coffee. Apart from the fact that those friends usually have less hair than then, we might also experience that we doesn't have that much in common now that school is over and we have moved away from that neighborhood.
In the age of internet, our network to a large degree consist of people with whom we share interests rather than who we share zip code with. I myself, and quite many that I know of, have met people in real life around the planet whom they learned to know online. On a recent trip to USA I met with about 25 people throughout the trip whom I knew through our interest in one certain camera brand and met on online forums months or years back. An interest stronger than our nationality, zip-code, political viewpoints, line of work and income bracket. I traveled over the ocean, some of them traveled for many hours for us to meet.
My opinion is that ruling your network by interest is much more powerful than letting geography rule it. There is actually a book out now in which I'm a case study of networking that way. My life would be much different if I were connected to my childhood street rather than my interest network.
Family is one thing you can't get rid of. It's in the blood, either you like it or not. You can get rid of and disconnect from friends and even ex-wifes or ex-husbands. Even un-friend friends on Facebook so as to let them disappear into deep space. But the family is always your family, no matter how distant they are and how seldom you may meet. Which can be an awful fact, or it can be a relief in that nobody and nothing can take your family from you. It will always be there, and you will eventually reunite even after the most horrific disagreements.
You is what makes you unique
To touch back on photography for a bit, what makes a person interesting is that the person is an individual. Some may make a point in being so individual that they are really more a conformity of individualism. Some are just themself in a natural, healty and direct accesible way. And quite many may hide - or even have forgotten - that they are in fact them self.
Being on self is a very unique thing. I can't stress how exclusive it is, and that it's all made by you personally and can't be pirate copied or can't be bought even in the most fancy stores.
What makes an interesting image is the person. Not them being someone but just be. "The right thing to be, is to be," as it's said. Which also answers the longstanding question, "To be or not to be?"
Let it be
Back to the kindergarten. Many of us have kids, and at least I have noticed how I get ambitions on behalf of my children. I buy microphones and guitars in the ambition that my daughter may become a famous singer. Then I buy a drawing table and professional drawing equipment in the ambition that my daughter may become a talented painter. And I buy designer clothes in the ambition that she might want to take up fashion design.
And yet they surprise you in that they may play with the microphone and the guitar for a bit, but what they really fancy is mathematics or biology! I mean, what is that good for?
I guess it will lead somewhere in the way that I have always myself done what interested me - and then after some time I found a business model and a lifestyle that suited that interest and made that interest into a job and a business. I've never had success with making money, I've always only had success with making something else, which then in turn made money.
And I guess that is the way the interest in mathematics has to go. It has to go it's own way, what she can make of it and which I can't predict or even see the potential in.
And to conclude this first chapter in this ongoing story, the first rule in doing the most stellar portraits of people is the same as in how to treat your kids, your parents and others you really care about: You have to give them the space to be just whoever and whatever they are.
Be there and help them with what they feel they need help with. Don't over-guide or over-rule people or make them something else. It won't work. In portraits it will make lousy photos of meatballs without soul, in life it will make unhappy people who make nothing of life but a middle class car parked amongst two hundred others middle class cars; and who believe the solution to an unhappy life is a pill.
The right choice
"A man does what he must - in spite of personal consequences, in spite of obstacles and dangers and pressures - and that is the basis of all human morality." That is the quote of Winston Churchill, the man who actually changed the fate of the world, no less.
What I like about that quote is that it may be interpreted differently depending on the viewpoint: You can tell someone to do as told because it's their duty, or you can tell yourself to do what you think is right, because it's your duty. What connects the dots is reason and mutual respect. Without it there won't be any great portraits, nor any great personalities.
June 30, 2010 - Thorsten Overgaard