Debabrata Ray on Photographing Tattoo Artists

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All images by Debabrata Ray. Used with permission.

“I also think that having friends who loved getting their pictures taken, added to this effect.” says photographer Debabrata Ray about his love of photography and portraiture. Perhaps his love of these things, her personable nature, and the way this is all conveyed through her portraits of tattoo artists are why we were drawn to his work.

Deb, as he goes by for short, is based in Copenhagen and is a self-taught photographer. We found his work on Behance, where he wrote that his photography style is editorial / photojournalistic and that he loves to portray and convey a story through his photographs. With that in mind, he is also a creative director and a designer who learned his in-depth knowledge of lighting from both The Phoblographer and FStoppers.

Phoblographer: Talk to us about how you got into photography.

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Deb: As a kid I loved taking pictures. The very thought of capturing something I could see with my eye onto a piece of paper was an amazing process for me. It was like freezing a moment in time I was living in. From childhood I’ve been a very creative person, I was pretty good at arts – I’ve painted with oil on canvas and water-color on paper.

My dad gave me a Nikon point & shoot film camera when I was 12 years of age. I used to take pictures of anything I would find interesting, be it plants in our garden, staircases or any interesting patterns and then I would wait for the roll of 36 to get developed at the studio before I could see them. But the time when I really got hooked to photography was when I was 21 and I came across a friend who had bought a 2 Megapixel Sony digital camera. The very thought of taking a picture and instantly being able to see it on the back of the camera and then on a computer was amazing! That’s when I started saving money for buying a DSLR and I think it was in 2004 when i got my first DSLR – the Nikon D70.

I haven’t looked back since then. I have spent endless hours studying about the subject online and everything I have learnt thus far on camera, lighting, re-touching etc. is all through researching various photographer websites, looking at EXIF infos of photographs, reading blogs, looking at BTS videos and going through websites such as Phoblographer, FStoppers, Dpreview etc.

Phoblographer: What made you want to shoot portraits?

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Deb: I have always been inspired by people. Be it in my paintings that I used to do as a kid or when I got my photography. It was a subject I naturally gravitated towards. I didn’t really feel like shooting landscapes or architecture or wildlife or food etc. as a first preference. From the beginning I knew that if I had to learn something well, I had to focus on that subject very seriously. I stuck to my inner conscience, and continued honing my skills in portrait photography.

I also think that having friends who loved getting their pictures taken, added to this effect. I just love the expressions that a human face is able to produce. I think as a subject there isn’t a more intriguing aspect of nature than us humans and that’s why I love shooting portraits. I’m more of an on-location portrait person than a studio person. I’ve played around with portraits in a studio and I think they definitely have their place, but to me a person and their environment or surroundings intrigue me more as a subject.

Phoblographer: Tattoo artists are interesting folks and they all have their own stories. So what motivated you to do this project and what was your intention with the images?

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Deb: I have always been fascinated by people who sport tattoos, especially ones with elaborate designs on their bodies which are truly a work of art. It’s like painting elaborate patterns, but on bodies of people. I have always admired people who can really bring their imagination out onto a medium – be it paper, canvas or in this case humans. I know it’s not easy and how I struggle many times to create the very picture that I have in my head in my camera. These folks are amazing creatives just like painters, photographers or authors. They have a vision in mind, they meticulously draw it out on paper (in more recent times I’ve seen them draw directly into Adobe Illustrator using the jazzy Wacom Cintique tablets) and then they draw out these patterns on people’s bodies. And mind you it’s not a simple process. A beautifully done intricate tattoo will take multiple sittings and to be able to maintain that vision for a customer through these multiple sittings and to start exactly at the point where you left off is an amazing capability. It requires patience, perseverance, dedication and amazing creative capabilities to pull such a work off.

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I’ve always had respect and will continue to have respect for both, people who wear tattoos (I believe these folks are the most transparent folks amongst us when it comes to displaying emotions – as I think they truly fit the saying that “they wear their heart on their sleeve”) and obviously the artists who actually create this beautiful art-work. And tattoo artists are a great amalgamation of both.

So my deep fascination for tattoos was nurtured further, when every morning, I used to pass this tattoo studio named Iron & Ink tattoo Studio – which is one of the best tattoo studios in Denmark with branches in Vejle (another city in Denmark), Oslo & London. I contacted them through their Facebook page and got through to the owner Hawaro, who himself is an amazing person.

After a couple of chatroom sessions on Facebook, we decided to meet and I met him at the Copenhagen studio. I described what I wanted to do and he liked the idea of not documenting the work at his studio besides taking individual portraits of his team. That was it – I had gotten what I wanted, we decided on a date; Hawaro put me through to his studio manager and we worked out the logistics of the shoot. I went a couple of days prior to the date of the shoot, did a recon of the location, met up with the team & explained to them what I intended to do – so that they wouldn’t be startled, or feel awkward, when I walked in there with my lights and camera gear.

Phoblographer: How did you go about finding the artists, telling them about your project and to pose for you?

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Deb: What I feel is important is to first decide the theme of the shoot. In this example I wanted to shoot the artists who created these beautiful tattoos. I chose that as a starting point and then when I saw this tattoo studio – it was like reality meeting vision. From this point onwards I just followed through and found the right channel to approach the person in-charge. Also I spent important time explaining to the people I was going to shoot with – i.e. my subjects, what I was going to do. This way they came prepared with an expectation of what was going to happen.

I think communication is really, really important. Being able to clearly communicate my vision is very important to make sure that my subjects are always comfortable shooting with me. In addition I always make it a point to keep showing them pictures as I go about shooting them. I feel during a shoot, I have succeeded as a photographer, when the subject I am taking a portrait of, starts participating in my vision and starts collaborating with me. For e.g. with these tattoo artists in the beginning when I started taking their pictures, they were a little stiff, however as we got talking and I kept showing them their pictures as I was taking them, they started opening up and started participating in making this project a success. They would look at the picture and say – maybe if I pose like this that would be better, or maybe my hair is not looking that good – let me settle that etc. The most important parameters is to make sure the subject feels that it’s their success that makes my work successful.

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Phoblographer: Everyone has their own poses, did they do them themselves or did you have anything to do with it? How do you feel these poses tell us more about them as people?

Deb: Usually in these kinds of situations when I am working with people who haven’t posed before for professional portraits, I would start of by giving them guidance and direction on what to do. That makes the process a little boring to start with, but as I move along, I make them more comfortable by talking to them and walking them through the process. I also make sure to delete pictures on camera immediately in front of them, if my subject doesn’t feel good or comfortable about it. That way I gain trust with them and they start easing out. As for a pose describing a person – it’s very important to understand the nature of my subject I am photographing. To start with I will tell them to pose as a person they would like their friends to see them. So the question I pop is if a close friend of theirs saw the pictures, would they be able to relate to them as a person they know? That’s when they know – especially from a facial expression point of view what they have to do. I can then concentrate on posing the rest of the body. Depending on whether I’m taking a full-body portrait or just a head & shoulder portrait, I will ask them to pose differently.

On different occasions I will just go with the flow and let the subject do their own thing and see if that is working out – even if it is just for the pure sake of making them feel comfortable – I will however be very frank to tell them if it’s working for me or not. I generally keep a broad vision in mind of what I want to achieve from the session. This is a vision I either have set for myself or have agreed with the client beforehand and if there’s something that is going way off the track, I will try to steer it back to where I want it to be, but then it’s a tightrope I feel I have to walk several times.

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Phoblographer: What do you want to do with the series? A book? A gallery?

Deb: The owner of the tattoo studio was really excited with my work and loved the series. I will be photographing his team in the other branch in Vejle, another Danish city, which apparently also happens to be Iron & Ink’s headquarters. Who knows maybe I’ll get a chance to cover their team in the Oslo studio as well. Once I’m done with the series, I’ll probably make it into a coffee table book.

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