It didn’t take me long to realise that I am first and foremost a portrait photographer. Macro doesn’t do it for me. Landscape photography bores me to tears and photographing food just wouldn’t cut the mustard. But send me out into a sea of faces and I come alive. The gnarlier the better. You see, its a personal thing. That little black box held to my eye has a little invisible string attached running right to my subject’s soul. Now many would laugh and ridicule the idea that a photograph could possibly steal a fragment of your soul but I promise that something very poignant happens in that instant when I click the shutter.
Think of it this way…. how many times have you stepped into a lift or spent an entire train journey trying to avoid the eyes of others. How many conversations have you had where you quickly gaze away for fear that the other person could read your thoughts? Why do we do that? Why the eyes? They’re nothing more than two small holes in our head. But sometimes when your eyes lock with a complete stranger it’s enough to set your heart racing.
I will always ask my subject’s permission for this very reason and I rarely risk candid street photography. This is partly due to the fact that I live in the Middle East where photography is the subject of suspicion and it is highly frowned upon to take pictures of local women. It is also because I know I am taking a part of them for my benefit. I am feeding my passion for portrait photography by taking their image. So, I always offer to print my images and return with them as a thank you.
Bruce Gilden is an example of a photographer who has no qualms about street photography and sticking a camera in someone’s face. His style is created by taking very up close portraits of pedestrians whom he surprises last minute with his camera and flash. He has balls. Very big balls. But then again you don’t become a Magnum photographer for nothing.
I have a continued personal project of documenting life in Qatar and our latest venture was to the livestock market. My heart was racing a tad as we stepped out of the car. Two women in a throng of men is intimidating at first and my dearest wish as a photographer at times is that I could be invisible. One by one we photographed the men. As we progressed along the stalls of animals more men appeared and before long we were drawing quite a crowd. By this point I was in my element. Each time I raised my camera and focussed on their eyes I wondered about their life, their family, their dreams. I didn’t speak Arabic and they had no English so the intense gaze into my lens was our gateway to communication. I look at these images now and I wonder if they too felt a connection to me. Did they wonder about my story? There were two men that evening whose eyes I will never forget. There was something so haunting in their gaze that I suspect they etched themselves on to my soul.
As the great photographer Richard Avedon once said “If each photograph steals a bit of the soul, isn’t it possible that I give up pieces of mine every time I take a picture?”. I tend to agree with you.