Last Updated on 08/20/2018 by Mark Beckenbach
I am of the genuine belief that every photographer needs to have the camera turned on them every now and again in order for them to understand their subjects more.
One of the things many photographers speak of is empathy for your subjects. While I hate that romanticized idea due to my belief that it should be common sense, I agree: you should always do unto others as you’d have others do unto you. Blame Catholic schooling for that. If you want to turn the camera onto other people, you shouldn’t be the person who says, “Oh I don’t like having the camera turned on me.” If that’s the case, then why do it to others? Why not instead work to make yourself feel better in front of the camera or find a way to work with a photographer to do that? This has been my philosophy for years and in my eyes, there’s no exception to this rule. In order to have true empathy for your subjects, you need to step into their shoes and live a day in their lives. When I combined this with a few recent life changes I’ve made, it becomes something worth putting forward in photos that are representative of who you are.
The Last Time I Did This
A few years ago, I commissioned photographer Simon Chetrit to do my headshots and new portraits. We had a few ideas that we mulled over but ultimately he came to the idea of me getting every single camera that was in my apartment at the time, slinging them around me, and shooting with all of them out in the streets of Williamsburg. That idea was absolutely insane in my opinion, but in the long run I feel like it worked out. That’s the Chris that so many people in the industry know when they meet me in person and who my friends will attest to. Anytime I go out with them I usually bring a camera with me that I’m testing in order to see how I can incorporate it into my everyday life. It’s a critical part of testing. And if I’m not testing anything, then I either don’t bring a camera with me at all and adjust to the withdrawal, or I bring a film camera with me. Film, to me, is my personal escape from all things digital (what the staff and I get inundated with all the time).
This is the shot Simon liked the most and looking back, I think I do too. I’m wearing what I’d typically wear out at times and I look pudgy because my back and chest are being weighed down by big DSLRs, mirrorless cameras, and film cameras of 35mm and medium format. But it screams out to people exactly who and what I am. It shows the hair in that emo look that was arguably the rage a few years ago, and I look pretty serious. Indeed at that time, I was. I was trying to figure out a number of big problems with adapting the Phoblographer to the changing web. I predicted a massive growth for the site that was hampered by Facebook’s algorithms and a number of other factors (including the numerous sites that tend to rewrite our pieces without and sort of credit). So this is a Chris that is down but looking to get back up and to the top, trying to figure out a solution to a problem I can’t control.
I was taught the following quote: “Bad captains complain about the wind. Good captains adjust the sails.” In this situation, I was trying to adjust the sails. The site is approaching year nine as of my writing this piece and I think I’ve steered the ship pretty well thus far. Have we evolved? Sure. But what website doesn’t?
The Story of My Current Social Media Portrait and Headshot
For a little while after this, the photo above was my headshot. I shot it myself when testing out a lens. It represented who I was and just made me look pretty good. It’s a tight portrait that hides a lot of imperfections. I had a massive weight gain due to stress and a number of issues, but have worked through a lot of them since turning 30. Now 31, I wanted to put another face forward. So I put out a feeler amongst other photographers in my network. I had a pretty massive amount of folks tell me that they wanted to photograph me and I offered to pay them all. No one accepted payment, stating that I’m either a good friend or I’ve done them a number of favors they were looking to pay back.
Fair enough, right? Do unto others, right?
Two photographers stepped forward who truly surprised me. One is Ian Pettigrew, Because he lives in Canada and commutes to the Tri-State area for work every now and again, our schedules don’t always sync. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to shoot, but Ian has been in national television and has has a number of fantastic and successful Kickstarter projects around his charity-based work. He’s fantastic, and the fact that he stepped up flattered me.
The other is Tony Gale. Before I go on, I should be very transparent about Tony and I; he’s a very good friend. He’s been to my place for Christmas more than once, dinner parties, foodie outings, photography events, and I’m a member of APA, an organization which he helps run. Plus, he’s a very famous photographer. So what I thought in my head when he stepped up was, “Wait, really? Huh. Thanks.”
Tony asked about what I was going for in my photos, and I showed him a few previous images. He asked about the usage, I explained social media and work related projects. To this day, I haven’t updated my LinkedIn Profile photo because I simply hate the network. Why should I use LinkedIn when I’ve got an entire network of people that I’ve known and worked with for years. Why can’t I just instantly tap and millions of people I’ve worked for 1/3rd of my life to interact with instead?
So Tony asked me to meet at a specific location. The day was overcast, foggy, and amazingly quiet. At the same time, it was warm and humid. Humidity and I don’t mix well: I sweat pretty easily. Tony and I walked around the area, scouting spots and trading ideas. We had conversations, he told me to think about certain things, and I volunteered to be well dressed, as I am in the images. What I forgot about though is my transitions lenses.
Tony had a few ideas and locations; and I didn’t even have to ask what my framing was for the images. This is something I often communicate with the folks I photograph so that they know what we’re working with. I genuinely feel like it’s an essential piece of portrait taking; the photographer has to do less adjustment, the portrait subject knows the space to work in, etc. Communication, and more importantly fluid communication, is incredibly important to any successful portrait shoot. Again, do unto others.
So with the framing in mind, I was able to perform as I normally would and include ideas of my own. The conversational part of it ensured genuine emotions out of me, which is another big point I stress a lot with portrait photographers. Making someone laugh or smile is much better than asking them to do so. In fact, asking someone to smile should only really be a last resort. Tony at one point made me laugh about something and the lead photo for this story was born. That image is my favorite and it couldn’t have happened without fluid communication. At one point he told me he wished that my eyes would open up more. This is something I’ve practiced by opening the eyes up and relaxing my forehead. I was able to give that to him in between shooting photos and cleaning my glasses.
After the shoot, Tony gave me two client proof folders: one of all the images (there were a lot) and one of his selects. I narrowed down his selects and asked him to retouch a few. I was fine without retouching because of how I know he edits and tries to shoot to ensure the least amount of editing possible while shooting. I had the images the next day.
The photo has made folks have a generally positive outlook towards me and has directed comments on my new look that I never expected and from people I never expected. Essentially, Tony did his job. I would have easily paid Tony’s rate, but he declined since we have that working relationship. But by and far, Tony’s creative vision mixed with communication and genuine feelings made this a hit and it would any photo shoot.
The Worst Portrait Session I’ve Ever Had
The last photographer is one I’m not going to mention by name and who I don’t even look at as a portrait photographer. In fact, when we got on a call to discuss payment and the ideas beforehand his words were, “You can’t afford me.”
Oh, well that’s a nice reminder that I’m poor…
By far though, this was the most comprehensive pre-planning session that I’ve had, which the photographer should be commended on. But due to the way my schedule works I typically only take calls and answer emails on Tuesdays and Thursdays. It has given me much better clarity and allowed me to hyper-focus on the work I do with better efficiency. He decided to call me right then and there…at 10AM on a Friday morning. I generally hate talking on the phone, but figured I’d take the call which I assumed would be a few minutes. Instead, it turned into an hour long Facetime conversation where I showed the area around my apartment, in my apartment building, etc.
He asked me a number of questions, I answered and he called my answers “superficial.” Wrong. A dead wrong response and the wrong thing to say to anyone. For a few minutes I almost completely blanked on what he was saying just because I knew that folks who genuinely know me would have laughed in his face.
Nonetheless, a few days I got dressed up as I would when going to a press meeting, woke up super early to shoot at 9am and get ready with some cleaning up around my apartment, and was treated to a text stating he’d be an hour and fifteen minutes late.
At this point, I genuinely hope that you can hear the loudest sigh in the world.
We shoot. He brings Leica equipment, forgets lenses, forgets a flash to use off camera, asks to borrow my gear, has autofocus issues galore, doesn’t give me directions on framing, etc. In fact when I asked about framing he stated, “That’s not for you to worry about, I’m the photographer.”
The portrait shooter inside of me was hiding rage. The rage started to come in small tidbits when he started asking me to smile and show teeth instead of finding a way to make me smile. When I tried to hint at this to him, he didn’t listen. When I tried to give him ideas, he was so enamored with his own that they ended up backfiring on him. At one point he wanted to shoot me in my bathtub as a nod to Cartier-Bresson. But my bathroom in probably 5 feet x 10 feet, and with its design that isn’t possible at all.
When he left, I felt like a weight had been taken off of my shoulders and I was dreading to see what the final images would look like. When the images finally came in, I was right.
What I Learned
This shoot, contrasting with what other photographers have done with me and what I’ve done with various other subjects, reinforced in my mind just how essential pre-planning, fluid yet effective communication, and finding a way to get genuine reactions out of subjects is to portrait photography. I’ve been preaching this for years and what I learned is that it becomes evident in the way that many photographers work. There are big differences between an experienced veteran photographer who has been shooting portraits and headshots for clients for years, a portrait photographer/photojournalist who literally does this for a living but who also does experimental work on film, and one who I’d say isn’t as experienced yet is passionate. To that end, I have to state that working with “Uncle Bob” types of photographers isn’t always the best thing to do. Photographers command their fees for great reason and are worth their time and your money.
Does this sound obvious to you? Yes. But it should be implemented into practice.