Last week, I wrote about the power of photographs to liberate and oppress, from Frederick Douglass’s Daguerreotypes to a Manhattan photo instructor’s fraught relationship with his model.
I am concerned to be on the liberatory side of photography history. Goodwill alone won’t take me there. So, this week, I am articulating what had been my nascent principles for portrait photography.
As I developed my thoughts for this piece, I found familiar influences from my coaching training. This didn't surprise me, because I've been thinking about those connections over the last year. I was gratified to also find the influence of Brazilian educationalist Paulo Freire. In his text Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire lays out a philosophy for a democratic relationship between an educator and students. He theorizes a “co-intentional” relationship: the educator and students share power. They negotiate together what they will study and how they will learn, and the educator teaches by posing problems and questions about lived experience, rather than coming to the classroom with ready-made answers. Nonetheless, the educator is still responsible for being an expert in the issue at hand and for setting a course that will best serve the students. Thus, the alliance remains dynamic, supporting students in taking risks and making new discoveries.
I was especially glad to see this influence alive because it’s central to the work at the CUNY SPS MA in Applied Theatre, where I studied and where I advise thesis projects. Helen White, a founder of the program, applies the philosophy to directing, in her course The Co-Intentional Director. So, here I am, aspiring to be a co-intentional photographer.
Share a clear purpose for the project
The International Coach Federation recommends that the coach and client establish a goal for the session before diving into coaching. Who am I to disagree? A clear purpose provides a fair, mutual rubric for evaluating the success of the photo shoot. It also provides the photographer and the client a compass to check during the project, so they can get back on track if they get lost in an idea.
In work I’ve done for the LGBT Center, the purpose included demonstrating solidarity and resilience, and showing complexity. For promotional materials, I’ve built shoots around showing a dark sense of humor, showing warmth, showing strength, and showing trustworthiness. Purposes have also been more interior, such as daring to portray swagger on the camera, or commemorating a career change.
The photographer’s purposes are important to consider, as well. Is the photographer interested in building their business? Making art? Telling a story? These purposes matter, and they’re worth talking about, too. To wit, I’m learning to be clear and direct about the business aspects of the shoot, so that I feel good about it and there is nothing lingering unsaid between me and the client. In regards to art-making and story-telling, I have an eye on both, constantly. Did we get to this client’s gravitas as well as their exuberance? Have we found something special formally, e.g. with the light or wardrobe or composition? I share these questions with my clients, and they get to riff on them with me, and join in developing the shoot as much as they are interested and able to do.
Share ownership of the process
In regards to Freire’s co-intentional perspective, if the photographer and the client are aligned on the purposes of the project, they will be set up to make decisions collaboratively, defusing potential power struggles. For example, if a client and I are clear we’re taking pictures that show she’s an expert in her field, we’ll both know we won’t move on from a look until she’s hit her stride and I’ve got a picture of her being poised. Without that clarity, I might be satisfied to move on if I’ve gotten a picture of her looking joyful, whereas she would feel I had skipped over the core of what she wanted for her shoot.
If the process is really mutually shared, the subject can say, “hold on, stop, this isn’t working for me.” The photographer won’t hear this as a strike against their work, but as an important input toward the purpose of the project. Likewise, if the process is shared, the photographer can pause the action to share their needs—like needing to pause to think through what to do with the light—and to share spontaneous inspiration.
Furthermore, when the photographer and subject are both confident that they have the freedom to say “no,” riskier and edgier ideas become possible. I don't want to breach any confidentiality by telling stories from shoots here, but I hope that my photos convey the sense of risk-taking that has been present in the shoots.
Be able to make the photos
If the photos don’t work, the process may be beautiful, but it will be cheapened in its representation.
What makes photos work? In theatre, formalists critique acting, the narrative, the dialogue, the lighting, the sound, the costumes, the set, and so on. In photography, formalists critique exposure, composition, lighting, setting, props, expressions, poses, and so on. Are these elements the heart of the piece? Not entirely—audiences in both theatre and photography connect viscerally with moments and images and emotions, not the technical moves that manufactured them. However, without those moves, the audience wouldn’t have the juicy moments to remember. Therefore, the photographer has to have a technical and artistic game that matches the curiosity in their soul.
Furthermore, confidence in a strong final product supports a relaxed and creative processes. To maintain faith in the process, the photographer needs to trust in their skills to carry the day. Likewise, the client must trust the unfolding process. This requires an open heart on the client’s end, but also the photographer can nurture trust by communicating well about their work before the shoot and being contagiously and honestly confident during the shoot.
Be conscious of what’s at stake
Another concept of Paolo Freire’s is conscientization: becoming literate in the ways power and oppression work in the world. I reflected in this blog earlier about the importance of cultural literacy in coaching, and the dance between individuals’ particular wants and needs and the collective challenges and privileges individuals engage as a product of their cultural identities. The photographer must be literate in the politics at hand to avoid mimicking minimizing tropes.
To be specific, the more I’ve worked with women to get ready for photographs, the more I’ve recognized patterns in their fears and concerns about being photographed. This has allowed me to connect more quickly to what they’re working through to be able to show up in front of the camera.
Embrace the shadow
"Embracing the shadow" is one of five core approaches to coaching in Leadership that Work's Coaching for Transformation curriculum. In this approach, the coach and client explore parts of the client that usually don't get to speak without a charge or an agenda. A fierce inner critic can come to the session and talk about how tiring it is to stay vigilant; an inner child can come and ask for more chances to play.
At a studio shoot recently, I asserted that people’s faces freeze and their eyes get locked up when they have a strong experience and don’t express it. I invited my client to express those thoughts and feelings, even if they are “back off, I hate being photographed.” I suggested that we could explore how the guarded parts would want to show up on camera. Those photos might turn out, or not. But that’s okay. We never have to use the photos.
This opened up magic for my client. She got to be campy and absurd and, under that, got to be powerful and bold.
By daring to let edgier parts of themselves into the process, the subject gets to stay in the moment and discover whatever magic is waiting in the shadows.
Share control of the product
When the photographer and the subject review the photos, the dream is that all images will clearly be aligned with the purposes for the project. However, the photos might not resonate with all aspects of the purpose of the project, and the photographer and subject might have divergent experiences when viewing the images. In that case, the two need to be able to negotiate together. This is important ethically, and it’s essential for the client to have confidence in the process.
I have found different balances with different clients: “it’s okay to share my photos on your site, but I don’t want my name on them”; “let’s post these everywhere, with links to our websites, to cross-promote”; “yes, post them, but let me share them with my community first”; “these photos aren’t for anyone to see, just me, but these other photos are fine.”
And, sometimes it is not appropriate for the subject or subjects to review the photos before printing. For example, the LGBTQ Center’s My Voice Counts project culminated with in a popup gallery exhibition, so we needed to turn around the images quickly, rather than negotiating with the project’s over 50 participants. That increased the burden on the Center and me to edit the photos thoughtfully, and to clearly obtain consent before beginning the process. Nonetheless, when the project came down, the Center offered the prints to the participants to take home, extending the participants literal ownership of the final products.
The principle has to adapt to the shoot; while negotiating on how to use the photographs, the sharpest criterion is what use is most accountable to the original purpose of the project.
Final Thought: committing, growing
Portraits can be ethical without being liberating, and portraits can be liberating without following these strictures. However, given the luxury of a photo shoot in a studio or on location, and given the work that goes in to production, I dare myself and all photographers to always use photography to tell the truth below the surface, toward a freer world, beautifully.