Portraits & Approach

How do you approach the making of a portrait? And more specifically, are there any golden rules in the approach, or is each image made under its terms?

I'm an emotional photographer. By that I mean that I'm not really consciously aware of what it is I'm doing - I tend to go with a gut feeling. My friends say that I'm an open book and that I tend to be aware of others feelings - emotional intelligence.  Without putting too fine a point on it, I think that this is really at the core of people pictures. You need to have a sense of empathy for your subject. I know that when I approach someone, I go in there with an excitement to make an image of them because there is something about their pose or aesthetics which has inspired me. But I also go in there with an appreciation that I am entering into someone else's life. And each and every one of us has our own thoughts, feelings, aspirations and agendas. I never really know for sure how my advance is going to be interpreted, but I feel confident that I'm able to read body language well. I can tell sometimes when it's not going to happen. They're either blatant at moving away, or it's more subtle - a stiffening of their pose, a hardening of expression.... I just get a feeling and I know if it's going to work out.

I heard two stories about Steve McCurry. One contradicts the other. The first is that he communicates with people on a body language side only. This I can appreciate because it's exactly how it works for me. Most of the time there is very little said in the exchange. It's all done in a non verbal way and like I said, if you show empathy and respect for your subject, then the karma starts to flow. The other story I heard just recently was from a couple who went to Pakistan and said that the village they were in were fed up with Steve, because he'd been there for three weeks, orchestrating them into doing what he wanted - and giving nothing back. I personally doubt that this is true - it would go against the grain and we would see it in his photos.

About my photos. Well, the first one at the top of this posting, is of an old man in Jodpur. I like nothing better than getting up early and heading out for a wander. I just roam and roam. Sometimes I see someone and think they're interesting - something catches my eye and with this old man, I'd specifically asked him for his photo. Many people go into a 'ridgid' pose as soon as you enter into a dialog (verbal or non), but he was pretty cool. I like his pose - he seems almost inquisitive as to what I'm doing. The head is tilted to our left, and his hands are carrying a bucket - but they're in a nice position to seal off the bottom of the frame. Then there are the colours - they're all very complentary.

The second image, that of the girl happened in an entirely different way. Just outside Jaipur there's a little village run by the Bishnoi tribe. We were taken on a guided tour and I came upon this girl just leaning against the wall. The dialog was non-verbal. She didn't change her stance or anything (which made me happy - as I could already see the photograph right there). I nodded, held up the camera and shot, then smiled and she nodded back and I could see the trace of a smile as her eyes creased at the sides. It was non invasional, and like I've said - if I'd approached and she wasn't happy, I feel confident I would have picked up the vibes. Sometimes that's all you've got to go on.