Candid portraiture and why I do it

I think when it comes to photography in the form of candid portraiture, that is, snapping people at their most unaware, least flattering, most truthful, un-staged, it requires a degree of fearlessness behind the camera, a willingness to just ‘go for it’ no matter how they react, because ‘the shot is everything’, especially when you’re mingling with complete strangers. Family and friends are easy to work with; you have to treat them like wildlife, stick a camera in their faces enough times and they’ll stop snarling at you, forget that it’s there, and start associating your presence with the lump of glass and plastic that seems to be permanently adhered to your face.

Since I’ve lived in Chicago, I’ve been spoiled for creative choice in the form of endless scenarios and human interactions, often right in front of me. Endless faces, lined, wise, old, deep and interesting. Young and old, some all sunny-eyed with promise, others perpetually fixed downwards in quiet resignation, some fixed ahead and wise. I sometimes feel as though I’m in the audience of a theater, watching a production with actors that never needed rehearsals.

But I always hesitate before raising the camera, or even taking it out of the holder. I’m confronted with wonderfully framed shots that wouldn’t even need me to keep my finger on the button when one shot would clearly do, and yet I don’t take the shot. I feel as though I’m invading something private, or that if I was to pay interest they would suddenly become offended that I was watching something that was none of my business. What right do I have to stick the camera in and capture moments that aren’t mine to keep? And yet, that’s exactly the reason why I’m so in love with this style of photography, because if I do a good job, I can portray something that will be instantly and unmistakably identifiable to everyone.

I’ve had some pretty hostile reactions from my subjects to what I do. I can’t fully understand why, but I think it’s because they feel like their privacy has been invaded, which means that they are immediately forced to consider themselves and how they are perceived by others. It’s easy to absorb ourselves in our thoughts, thinking that our seemingly complex consciousnesses are the beginning and the end of the universe we inhabit, but when we see someone observing us, we are reminded we are very much like the rest of the people around us, nothing too special other than the importance we conjure for ourselves. It makes us feel uncomfortable and edgy. Other people just smile at me, but then that’s not what I want either, otherwise I would ask them to pose.

I want people at their absolute worst and their absolute best and every shade in between because that’s who we really are as people. We’re not those bleached out flash-ridden shots we see at a family get-together, or inhaling beers at a bar, or looking awkward and beautiful in wedding shots. We’re so much more than that.

We’re those quiet moments of contemplation, or the full fury of misplaced and ignorant anger. The dead eyes of pure tiredness or the rapt fascination of a new experience, or sound, or touch.

I feel reluctant to capture this because I think there is something sacred and private in these moments, and that if I ruin that moment for someone because they catch the flash of light in my lens from the corner of their eyes, they’ll stop whatever it was they were doing. I’m reminded of an important concept in our brains, that we cannot think about thinking, that the second we realize we’re in a moment, we’re no longer in it.

Yet I need to capture it, because this is all we have left, after we strip away the pretentiousness, all the things we do for show, all the times we’re not ourselves but more what we think people want us to be. I feel compelled to grab the moments when we don’t think, or don’t care, or don’t know, that anyone is looking.

1 thought on “Candid portraiture and why I do it”

  1. Hi Boy. Your second to last paragraph explains my first reaction to everything else above. I say get it (the shot) if you can do it with out destroying the moment. Good, bad, or indifferent the moment belongs to them. A friend of mine used to get really nice shoots with this camera holding it down at his waist, not making that "offensive" camera to face gesture.
    You got me wondering about what sort is considered okay in photographing Strangers and I found this conversation.
    What do you think about the the guy who is taking a portrait of a different stranger everyday?


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