I never looked forward to portraits as a staff newspaper photographer for a few reasons. I always thought they were too rushed, boring, and unnecessary when a documentary photo was a possibility. My former DOP would vouch for that. I always reserved my energy for the portrait series (whatever that meant). The white guy in a suit in front a building really kind of got to me after while.
What I’ve learned in these last couple years is to appreciate that brief 5 minutes to an hour of time you spend with another human you may never see face-to-face again. It’s a bizarre thing walking into a stranger’s house to steal their soul for a few moments of their lives and leaving. What you create lasts forever. That brief encounter recorded within four corners of a rectangle that could come to serve as the messenger for relaying their thoughts and story to the millions of people who view it in print.
The portrait is a vehicle to connect two strangers through a story told and a story read.
I wish I had learned that quicker in my beginning career, because there are plenty of people I met along my journey that I wish I had taken 60 seconds to make a portrait of. Even if it was a mug. I wish I had just something that recorded that person at that particular time in our respective lives and chance encounter. If you take anything from this rambling, learn to stop interesting people you meet on a assignment and make a portrait of them. You never know who they may become or know what they might do later on in life. It thickens your archive. It helps your people skills. It makes you a better photographer.
Meet Tim Donaghy. Tim may not be instantly recognizable either by name or by face, but you know his story. He is the former N.B.A. referee, who a couple years ago, went to jail after pleading guilty to illegally betting on games (some of which he officiated), and feeding information to gamblers. Major news in the sports world.
I met him on a very chilly Florida morning (relatively) outside of his townhouse for the wonderful New York Times Magazine. I remember a few years ago having to shoot a photo of his large golf & country club home for the main paper when the news broke. Shooting his house was akin to shooting a portrait for me until recently. Too impersonal. Too quick. Visual paperwork.
Now, I can appreciate the portrait. It gives me an opportunity to really just meet people and get to know them more than “first name, last name (spell it), and where they are from.” The portrait helps us learn who another human is.
It is essentially what Mr. Donaghy is trying to get back after all that has happened in his life.
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