R.E.S.P.E.C.T; PEOPLE PHOTOGRAPHY’S SECRET INGREDIENT
Award-winning photojournalist Michael Coyne explains his approach to photographing people and why having respect for your subjects is so important.
Award-winning photojournalist Michael Coyne has photographed people all over the world and often in challenging situations. He explains why always having respect for your subjects – and treating them with dignity – is the key to great people photography.
An older woman points a smartphone at a child. The pre-schooler – familiar with the routine – preens and poses. It’s a grandparent/ grandchild scene played out repeatedly in cafes, parks and playgrounds in towns and cities the world over, wherever the generations gather. Grandma presses the button, an image pops up on the screen, her face lights up with joy – a poignant moment to be sure. I glance over her shoulder at the picture. It is badly lit, slightly blurred, and decidedly unexceptional in every aspect. But her rapture at the recording of this moment transcends everything.
How do you photograph people? It’s a question I’m frequently asked.
What jumps into my mind immediately is the word ‘respect’. Respect the people you are photographing, listen to them and make them the centre of attention. This belief is central to the work of
Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado who said, “I have often been asked what makes a good photographer of people. Well, I believe that you must show a strong respect and love for the people you are photographing – if you do, then that respect will be apparent in your photographs, which will then have a great dignity”.
Respect and dignity go hand-in-hand. This is clearly evident in Salgado’s projects where, despite the fact that many of the subjects in his pictures are struggling with health issues or poverty, they are nonetheless shown in a dignified way.
A little while ago I was working with the indigenous people on the Chilean side of the Andes. With the help of Eduardo, a local nurse, I managed to get close to many of the people and enter their homes, which was essential for my project. As we entered one house I realised we were interrupting a family eating their meal. There were plates of half-eaten food as well as pots and dishes scattered everywhere. Taking a picture in that context would have given a false impression of laziness, rather than conveying the reality; a family who had stopped eating their meal to entertain unexpected guests. Respect is important.
I’m a people photographer. I’m enthralled when I listen to people’s stories and share their lives and experiences.
I’ve drunk tea with nomads in Iran, eaten mealie with tribespeople in Africa, and danced the tango with gauchos in Argentina. This is another secret to photographing people; engage with them and spend time with them.
If you’re going to photograph people in another culture or country, find out what interests them. Before going to India, I brush up on my cricket knowledge. It’s a national topic of conversation in most parts of that country. I’ve discussed economics with a taxi driver in Tunisia. And I’ve sat on a roof, under missile attacks in Tehran, with an Islamic revolutionary debating the meaning of Friedrich Nietzsche’s declaration that “God is dead”.
Arnold Newman, the great American environmental portrait photographer said in an interview with PhotoPro magazine, “I prefer to photograph people at ease because I come closer to what I’ve called the ‘common denominator’ of that personality”.
I don’t know how the Iranian revolutionary on that roof felt, but I certainly wasn’t at ease up there with him, and I admit the conversation was difficult. However, it did help me get closer to the leader of the Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini.
Street photography – or photographing people on the streets – has been with us since photography was invented. Photographers like Brassai, Jacques Henri Lartigue, August Sander and John Thomson lugged large equipment through the streets to capture their subjects in the late 19th and early 20th century.
Nowadays, street photographers use everything from the fastest and newest camera equipment to the ubiquitous smartphone. But, as we know, cameras don’t take pictures, people do. Or, to quote National Geographic Magazine photographer, Sam Haskins, “It matters little how much equipment we use; it matters much that we be masters of all we do use”.
There are many ways of photographing people on the streets and the best photographers have their own styles.
The American photographer Alex Webb prefers to continuously walk and create images sufficiently illustrative that words are not needed. He says, “I only know how to approach a place by walking. For what does a street photographer do but walk and watch and wait and talk, and then watch and wait some more, trying to remain confident that the unexpected, the unknown, or the secret heart of the known awaits just around the corner”.
“I believe that you must show a strong respect and love for the people you are photographing.” – Sebastião Salgado.
“This is another secret to photographing people; engage with them and spend time with them.” – Michael Coyne.
New York photographer Bruce Gilden adopts an ‘in-your-face’ approach, striding up to people in the street and firing a flash at arm’s length, directly at his subjects. Effective maybe, but confronting just the same and not always conducive to the fostering of happy models.
It’s legal to photograph people in public areas in many countries and it’s mostly not a problem. However, in some countries it’s illegal to photograph women in public, and Australia can be fraught with issues where children are concerned. An Australian photographer who was taking pictures of insects on a beach was accused by a wary mother of photographing her child. The police were contacted and the photographer had to prove he was only photographing insects and was not a paedophile.
I was asked by an aid agency to do some work for them in a refugee camp. They sent me an article from an academic magazine on how they believed refugees should be photographed with dignity and respect. The images used in the article included pots of flowers to illustrate refugees growing their own food. One showed some people sitting around a table talking while a man looked at some documents. The third picture was of a family camped in a suburban street and taken from a distance so you couldn’t identify their faces. Whoops, I nearly forgot another image the magazine used for its article… women in long dresses photographed from their shoulders down to their feet. Which is my point, the photograph was so boring and uninteresting that it was instantly forgettable.
I agree that we should always respect and dignify the people we are photographing. But good people photography should also tell a story and connect the viewer to the subject or it gets lost in the 1.7 trillion other images that are estimated to be produced every year.
When the Spanish photographer Cristina Garcia Rodero was asked by Expatica magazine if she was either emotional or objective when taking a photograph, she replied, “Emotional always. I do not get contentment if I do not connect with the people emotionally, that is the reason I do not take pictures of buildings. There have to be people in my photographs. I reach out to them and make connections”.
Just like the grandmother and her smartphone photograph of her grandchild, it is the connection that makes the picture.
Michael Coyne is an internationally awarded photojournalist who has been widely published in news magazines around the world. He is the author of a number of books and holds a PhD in documentary photography. For more information visit www.michaelcoyne.com.au.