Portraits – sitters, photographers and labels

A recent post on Facebook linked to an article on PetaPixel where 6 photographers were asked to make portraits of the same subject with each thinking he was either: “a self-made millionaire, someone who has saved a life, an ex-inmate, a commercial fisherman, a self-proclaimed psychic, and a recovering alcoholic.”

There are many ways to look at this, you can dismiss it as a load of old tosh and say that of course each photographer will make a different image. Or you can see it as showing some of the fundamental issues that all portrait photographers face.

Of course the photographer always imposes their stamp on the end result. Good practitioners will know that a portrait is as much about them as it is about the sitter and will be aware of their input on the resulting photograph.

The thing about this exercise is that the sitter was given a label which was passed to each photographer. They were also given just 10 minutes for the session. For me the interesting thing here is how each of them reacted to the label, how they did see not the man but the label he had been given. A professional portrait photographer should be able to get past that and see through to the real person.

When it comes to viewing the end result there will be other labels that affect the meaning. If each image was captioned with the details that had been given to the photographers the viewer would ‘know’ how to see the image; meanings would be imposed by the caption. That is one of the problems with photography, we tell the audience what to see instead of leaving interpretations open.

The subject was an actor, he was playing the part he had been given. So what was the purpose of the exercise? You could dismiss it as yet another example of internet rubbish or take it as a way of raising some important issues for both photographers and audiences to consider.

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