I guess photographic portraits can be strange things. They allow us to stare at an individuals face for an unusually long period of time, in close up, without his or her knowledge whilst safe from being shouted at, or either punched very hard in the face. We would never do that would we? No of course not, unless we actually wanted to end up in a fight. Even those of us who possess uncontrollable voyeuristic tendencies would shirk at the prospect of face to face, eye-ball to eye-ball confrontation with some one we do no know. Or perhaps I feel that way because where I grew up it was common place if you got caught staring at some one across a room to hear the term “‘what are you fucking looking at?”
So the portrait photographer finds themselves in an envious and privileged position. It is a position where the photographer can exercise both power and control over the sitter. It is a precarious position of mutual trust. When else are we ever allowed to inspect a persons face at close quarters? So, it is a great gift when some one agrees to have their portrait made. I’ve often thought it is really quite brave of some one to allow a photographer to stand close enough to smell their after shave or their body odour, which ever is stronger that day, whilst the photographer recorded for posterity any blemish or spot or slight imperfection on their skin. I am not so brave, I do not particularly like being photographed.
I also admire the confidence in some people whether famous or not who seem to enjoy their image to be captured. I personally really do not enjoy the whole process. I’ve also always disliked the way that we describe the act of photographing a person in Britain. In our culture we say we ‘take a Portrait’. It almost sounds as if we are stealing it. Rather than it being offered. I hear in some languages the verb to ‘take’ some ones photograph is to ‘immortalise’ them. A much nicer turn of phrase.
Of late, I have been considering the term ‘photographing the other’. It is a term I have only recently come across and I am still coming to terms with its implications for me. For instance, is it a term that I should use when I describe my portraits from India. I am definitely not comfortable with that at this time. Or is the term just another anthropological hangover that we have inherited from previous generations of photographers, scientists and academics who had an obsession with categorising and controlling our colonial cousins whilst empire building?
I am still considering my position on this. As to whether I must go with the academic flow and agree that I am wrong and they are right. Does ‘photographing the other’ depend on where I position myself culturally, racially or even academically? This position does not take into account the thousands of portraits that have been ‘TAKEN’ of me whilst I was living in India. Is the term ‘photographing the other’ still applicable in the worlds modern democratic digital age .
So, from a personal perspective let me explain…………….
The photograph below is a portrait of my Grandmother and for those of you who have read through from the beginning of this blog, Oct 2011 onwards, you will know that she was born in Dehra Dun in the North of India, for those of you who have not read from there, I don’t blame you, it is quite a read. My Nan hated having her photograph taken, she told me that when she was a young lady she fell over and smashed her front teeth out and from then she always considered herself ugly. It must be Shit to go through life and consider ones self ugly! Although I do remember coming across a set of her dentures next to the bathroom sink when I was a child, it was not a pretty site.
I have many photographs of my Nan that were taken by my Grandpa when she was a young lady in New Delhi India, before partition but hardly any of her as she grew older that were taken by me. I think she only agreed for me to take this portrait of her because it was her birthday, she would normally have told me to sod off! For those of you are interested this image was shot on colour film on a medium format Lomo. When this photograph was taken although I did not know it at the time Nan was already stricken with cancer and within one year she had died. Maybe the portrait is a little gift from her to me.
I did feel like I had to beg a little for her to stand up and let me get this image but I am pleased now that I made that effort, that I took a chance by asking her, after all she could have said no! It is an accurate record of how she felt, she was always in pain and would blame it on her arthritis, you can see by the look in her eye that maybe she is not having the time of her life but maybe, just maybe, she was also a little pleased that I asked her.
Below is a portrait of Dawn Rowley, Dawn is a friend of mine and also my best mates ‘Mrs’. This was a snatched portrait as we were just on the way out of the door to the pub on the corner of their road. Dawn has got the look of a strong and confident ‘COVGIRL’ about her; ‘Covgirl’, meaning local woman from Coventry and I do mean it as a term of endearment.
The photograph was taken with that Diana F+ medium format Lomo, god I had a great year with that Camera, we really bonded. There was never any part of the image that was really and truly sharp, it had an over all soft quality and even when the harsh direct flash gun was mounted the negatives were invariably thin and after scanning they always needed a quick lick from CS3. I think there is a really nice mix of colour all over the image, from the hair colour to the cheeks, the lipstick and her blue satin top.
And isn’t it weird how wall paper can some sometimes lift what would normally be a fairly unremarkable photograph and turn into some thing else, some thing quite stark. The pattern on the wallpaper records for us a time and a place and is a reminder to me of the small terraced houses that most of us inhabit in England.
There are few portraits I’ve taken that at first glance may not appear the most flattering of images but please believe me they capture the essence of a man as I like to remember him. Below these words is a portrait of Barrie Clark (with out an e) who was my very first newspaper Editor. If at the age of 17 I had not been drunk and in the Rose & Crown pub on the Walsgrave road in Coventry, England and I had not stumbled over to Barrie (also pissed) I probably would not have career in newspaper journalism that I subsequently had. Barrie (legend in his own lunch time) Clark became one of my greatest friends and I owe him much, thankfully before Barrie died I did get the chance to tell him how grateful I was for every thing he helped me with. Ab ab ab absolutely out of order.
I feel its time I added these two colour portraits. I quite often stumbled out of Gulliver’s bar on the Ko San Road Bangkok early in the morning quite drunk. At that time I had just gashed my foot with glass on a beach, I was on crutches. It was ten years ago February 2004.
A male/female transgender approached me each night. I guess Lady-boy is not P/C these days but please don’t judge if I revert back to that Asian stereotype.
Over the month I stayed there I stuck up quite a rapport with her. She had tried pulling me at first, her mans stomach unusually flat for a woman and slight stubble betrayed her secret. I was never ‘that’ pissed though I presume many clients had a huge surprise.
I kept teasing I was going to bring my camera out one night and photograph her; Always the extrovert she encouraged me to do this. The hassle of looking after my camera whilst pissed was too much a responsibility. On two occasions as I left the bar and she plied her trade I went back to my room collected my camera and shot some colour film.