First: watch this.
Connection. It's at the heart of what we, as photographers do. If you want to read something about the honesty required to truly connect with your subject, read Joe McNally's account of photographing Kim Phuc. If the name isn't familiar, perhaps the Vietnam War era image of a young girl, badly burned by napalm, running towards the camera, has been seared into your social consciousness. Kim Phuc is that girl.
"We talked. I was direct with her, as I believe a photographer needs to be in any sensitive situation. I had to make a picture that showed her scars." - Joe McNally
In speaking with Joe about that photograph at a workshop, I was struck by his humility and his ability to be very direct and succinct in speaking with Kim about making that image. He has a tremendous gift of humble curiosity and gentle demeanor when the situation calls. You can see that in his work. You can also hear the reverence in his tone when he speaks about that photograph, or about photographing the aftermath of genocide in Rwanda.
His 9-11 portraits hit you in the chest like a 10 lb sledge hammer. The expressions. The dust embedded in the gear. He's stayed in touch with the guys from Ladder Nine/Engine 33, and spends each September 11 morning with them. Having met Joe a few times, this isn't "schtick" for him. He's the real deal. These people have entered his life through the lens, and come out as friends. He doesn't Skype with them each 9/11. He travels from Connecticut to NYC and hangs out with them. Read more about that project on Scott Kelby's blog: Here.
I first saw the video above, ironically enough, on Facebook. It got me thinking about my time spent making portraits as of late. Reconnecting with a close friend to make a portrait at the end of last year. Using photography as a vehicle to become involved with Opera Birmingham's junior board, Amici. Meeting another friend who's a single mom whose drive and determination intrigue me, and whose portrait we'll hopefully get around to making eventually. Photographing my dad in his office, and really, for the first time, thinking about everything he did for me growing up and going out on his own. Photographing a family reunion over the weekend and watching four generations come together to celebrate 90 vibrant years in a man's life, as children threw toys in the fountain and hula hooped, and their parents listened to him recount his experiences fishing in the everglades some 60 years ago. Those moments, that connection. THAT'S the drive.
The images are a by product.
I share my media through all the usual social channels, but the thing that I (and I'd argue many of us) need to get better at is just being present. Enjoy moments with a friend over a meal. Enjoy time with your dad watching Animal House. Enjoy a snow day in bed with your daughter watching Fantasia. Enjoy brunch with a cousin you don't see often enough. Enjoy watching the sunset from the beach with your spouse. Enjoy getting to know your subjects, finding out what makes them tick, what is core to their being. Capture THAT in the image.
That's hard stuff.
It's far easier to learn all the technical mumbo jumbo and make properly produced photos. I'm as guilty of that as the next guy. What modifier. What ratio. What lens. How to retouch. Blah blah blah.
It's far harder to connect and really get that genuine emotion that reaches out and grabs someone when they look at it. How are you going to do that? What are you practicing, as a social creature, that gives you an edge the next time someone's in front of your lens? What relationships are you focusing on, developing, seeking, maturing?
I've always particularly enjoyed this song by David LaMotte since the first time I heard it in Montreat, NC. I was new to this whole photography thing, and had my first SLR with me. I don't know that I ever could have seen where this love affair with images has ended up, as a passion and vocation, but the words resonated even then. Over time, their meaning to me has evolved a bit as I identify with the sentiment of photographing someone and not being able to capture their essence. That's a far, far tougher skill to master than anything technical.