A few months ago I was sitting at the airport of Addis Ababa, I had spent a few weeks photographing people of the tribes of the Omo Valley, an intense and moving experience that left quite a deep mark on me. While I was waiting for a flight to Nairobi that would bring me to my next assignment I was catching up with emails.
Emails are my worst nightmare but an inevitable part of my daily life, so you can imagine how happy I was when I read the yet another email from a wanna be photographer asking me “It’s my dream to do what you do, I want to be a portrait photographer and travel the world. cool shots you got in Vietnam…WHAT SETTING DID YOU USE?”
I cringed! Questions like that brake my heart (and totally piss me off!). Not just because of the total disregard of the image itself and its subject but for the lack of curiosity and imagination of seeing beyond those damn settings.
In the last year I traveled to 10 different countries photographing people in the streets (mainly women), guided by nothing but instinct and curiosity, a necessary ingredient in travel portraiture.
To make a good portrait it’s so important to be curious of people and their culture and to ask ourselves a ton questions;
When I roam the streets of a new city (or village) i spend time talking to people before I even take out the camera, I try to make a connection first and when it comes time to click I forget any technicality because when I want to create something true and honest I think and shoot with my heart.
Obviously, if one wants to do photography professionally, it’s necessary to know the basics and the technical side of things. Technique can help us transmit the feeling we want to express the same way music can influence the audience in a movie.
With time I learnt what works best for me and I developed my own style, which helps me express specific emotions through my images. But that said, I believe more than anything that once we’ve learned the rules we should completely forget about them and brake them constantly when it’s time to look through the viewfinder.
Photography for me is made of feelings and emotions and a successful portrait isn’t made of perfect focus and impeccable sharpness but from the ability to capture the essence of a person, a tiny piece of their soul that tells their story.
A portrait is not made by the camera. It’s made by who’s behind it, who’s in front of it, who looks at it and from the shift of emotion created in between. Equipment, settings and technique are only tools that help us capture this magic. What matters to me is the emotional content.
So my dear ones, If you want to be a photographer, asking yourself only “What settings did you use” diminish the image and the art of photography itself. If this is the only questions that comes to mind looking at a photo of a woman working in the green rice fields of Hoi An in Vietnam, or the one of an old lady bagging for money in the souks of Marrakech, or that of a little kid of the Hamer Tribe in the Omo Valley wearing only animal skins, maybe travel portraiture is not the right field for ya! (go and shoot fashion!)
Looking at a portrait we should ask ourselves so many more questions…”Who’s the person in the picture?”, “Where is she from?”, “Where is she going?”, “Is she happy?”, “What’s her story?”.
Asking yourself these questions maybe you’ll end up learning something about the world, maybe you’ll even end up learning something about yourself!
What lays behind a portrait? That’s the only question that matters!