I wrote an article about making your portrait subjects more comfortable and noticed a great comment. “Annie Leibovitz runs an ad on YouTube etc. in which she says she doesn’t believe it’s the photographer’s job to put the person at ease… whats that about?” This is a great topic. This person is talking about the trailer for Annie Leibovitz’ MasterClass, which was a big disappointment. (I recommend her book ‘At Work’ as an alternative.
Let’s get the exact quote:
“There’s this idea that in portraiture, it’s the photographer’s job to set the subject at ease. I don’t believe that.”
Annie is right… and wrong. This is entirely situational. Are you photographing a happy couple on an engagement shoot? An actor getting her headshot? Or a family for a print that goes over the fireplace?
Then you better put them at ease, because they are paying you to make them look positive and upbeat. And I think in most cases, we do want our subjects to feel comfortable. But there are exceptions. If you want someone to appear sad or angry, then you may very well want to make them uncomfortable.
Richard Avedon infamously told the Duke and Duchess of Windsor that his taxi ran over a dog to upset them on a portrait sitting: (this video is set to start when he tells the full story)
Related Reading: Richard Avedon: 9 Lessons from a Master Portrait Photographer
This creates an ethical dilemma: in your pursuit of the portrait you see in your mind, is it okay to make someone upset? You must answer this question for yourself. I always want my subjects to walk away from a session feeling good about the experience. But, that’s not easy to balance that with my urge to explore the darker side of portraiture. And if you photograph enough people, sooner or later, you’re going to upset some people. You’re going to leave some victims in your wake. But that’s a risk you have to take if you want to make an impact.
What Do You Think?
Is it your job to make your subjects comfortable? Let me know in the comments!
P.S. Don’t forget to read our review of Annie’s book At Work.
Editor’s Note: This piece was originally published at OnPortraits. The Phoblographer has an exclusive syndication deal.