Melissa and I met at a competitive skeeball league night at a local brewery. Yes... such a thing actually exists, and is a great way to wind down a weekday after work over some suds.
She was there with a friend, and Hal is one of my closest childhood friends who had just moved to town. He was single at the time, and being the good friend that I am, I was happy to help wingman any, uh... "social situations" that arose. (Or, as chance would have it, create wonderfully semi-awkward situations to thrust him into unknowingly.)
A couple of attractive women walked in, and having had a beer or two, I took a page from the Barney Stinson playbook (From the TV Show: How I Met Your Mother, for those unfamiliar), and decided it was time to play, "Haaaaaaaave you met Hal?"
It was a moderately successful venture, we all talked some, the usual, what do you do, where are you from, blah blah blah. Typical bar chit-chat... until I asked about the small dragonfly tattoo on the inside of her left wrist.
She proceeded to tell me a beautiful story of her father's passing, and scattering the ashes following his cremation. Afterwards, a small dragonfly landed on her, and that's what inspired the tattoo.
Imagery as a totem, a visual indicator of an experience, visceral emotion. All things that, as a photographer, I particularly enjoy hearing folks talk about. We chatted for a while longer, and then Hal and I split.
Afterwards I thought, "I wish I'd talked about photographing her with the tattoo." That's kinda heavy though, particularly when it's someone you just met. Even more odd when the reason you "know" someone is because you were just awkwardly introducing her to your single friend. I figured, "Eh, oh well."
The more I thought about it though, the more I started to visualize the shot. Quiet. Simple. Definitely black and white. Something that spoke to the serenity, but at the same time the emotion, of the moment that inspired the tattoo.
Skeeball league play being a weekly thing, we ran into her a few weeks later, and we talked some more, got to know each other a little better. I learned some more about her, and became a little more intrigued. Single mother of three kids. Teacher. Trail runner. Marathoner. Lots of willpower and determination in those few things. Next thought, "Ok, there's my contrast. Fragility, pain, peace, against accomplishment, joy, determination."
More thinking. More visualizing. Then, the inner monologue finally speaks up "Ok, you gotta ask about doing a portrait."
I can't remember exactly how we wound up talking about it, but I finally brought it up. She was skeptical. I was brutally honest in how I wanted to shoot it. I told her that I wanted to know the whole story, the emotion, the grit, and that I wanted to talk about that while we shot. She was, understandably, nervous about that sort of thing, but she thought it sounded like something she'd like to do. (Side note... from introducing her to Hal to now has been a little over a year)
I had started working on my studio at that point, and we agreed that once it was done, we'd figure out the logistics of doing the shoot. We stayed in loose touch about it, and finally we figured out a time that would work.
There's a time for whacky fun and Chuck Norris jokes to get a subject into a particular headspace for an honest cracked up smile, but there's also a time for more direct, honest communication. Knowing what I wanted from the shots, I jumped right in. I asked questions about her most recent struggles. The marathon she did without any dedicated training. Struggles of raising kids. Relationships. Honest, heavy stuff. I also told her that at any time, she could pull the ejection handle and we'd shut it down.
In a portrait setting, you have to bring your subject to where you are before you can get honesty. Go have your photo taken. Tell me it doesn't feel weird. Honesty of emotional body language in front of a camera is HARD. Nobody wants that stuff seen in a way that exposes the soft tissue of their soul. It's easier to plaster on a fake smile and just breeze on through. If there's not that trust there between photographer and subject, you can't get it. Period. Even if it's joy. People have trouble expressing that in front of the camera in an honest way, and being the perceptive hominids we are, we can tell when it's forced. Sociological evolution for the win.
For the happier shots, we talked about her kids some more. Her daughter's PR at a recent race that they both ran. Her son's clever shenanigans and particular brand of kiddo mischief. I had her power pose. Wide stance, arms akimbo. Wonder woman. Less cortisol, more testosterone. Confidence. Drive. Dopamine. Smiles. BLAMMO. Emotional 180.
At the end I asked how she was doing. "It was hard. I'd do it again though. I like some of those shots a LOT." Mission accomplished.