23 Jan 2008

Photographing people - inhibitions

Self-consciousness is probably the main reason for holding back the talents of so many photographers. The thought of taking out a camera in public and pointing it at another person fills most photographers with dread. Why?

Maybe I was lucky to have had every inhibition knocked out of me at a very early age when I was an apprentice on a local newspaper. Even at the age of 15 I was expected to stand in front of a crowd of people and organise them into a group photograph – all this while using a 5 x 4 glass plate press camera and a flash unit with wet cell batteries I could barely lift. The first time I did this ‘solo’ was at a Christmas Fair in a school hall. The highest vantage point was the stage, and beneath the stage was laid out a table full of cakes and goodies. My boss, the chief photographer, stood at the back of the hall watching my performance.

In a voice barely broken by puberty, I yelled for attention and got a group of people herded near to me so that I could look down on them from the stage. You must bare in mind that in those days, the mantra of a local newspaper was ‘faces sell papers’. In other words, the more people you get on the photograph, the more newspapers will sell. I had gathered together perhaps 40 faces.

The very edge of the stage had a lethal sloping edge. You guessed it – just as I got everything set I slipped down the edge and skidded onto the table below. I watched my boss cover his face in shame as I waded ankle-deep in cream cakes and blancmange. However, the results of this spectacular fete of ineptitude was that everyone laughed – and I got the happiest photograph ever used in the newspaper.

Since that day I realised that it doesn’t matter a tinker’s cuss what people think of you at the time – provided you get the picture that matters. In actual fact all the ladies in the group rushed to offer me their motherly care – once they had stopped laughing.


Viv asks do I think black and white works best for people photographs, or is it my newspaper background? Well, Viv, a bit of both really. I love black and white. It has a power that colour can never quite equal. I do happen to have a library of b/w negatives numbering around 150,000, so I have plenty to go at. But that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy shooting colour. Just to prove it I have posted a couple of colour ‘people’ pictures.

The shot of the couple lying on the beach was taken with their consent. I saw them from some distance and took the first picture with a short telephoto lens, but I wanted to get right in close with a wide angle. The camera was glued to my eye as a walked carefully forward and spoke to them – ‘You look absolutely wonderful, please don’t move and let me take a photograph’. I was actually taking photographs as I spoke. They were a lovely, happy couple and delighted with the result when I showed them the picture.

So throw aside those inhibitions and take more photographs.

I’ve posted the photograph of the farmer to show that I’m quite happy to shoot colour for street portraits.

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