Get Close! Create Visual Impact Through Personal Connection

Get Close! Create Visual Impact Through Personal Connection

"If your pictures aren't good enough then you aren't close enough" Robert Capa

The Jaime Windsor commentary on ethics in street photography got me thinking that if photographers are often taking an impersonal, disconnected, or worse, invasive approach to their subjects then "how good are those photos really?" Except for the artistic “figure in a landscape” or purely abstract varieties, I find impersonal street or documentary images to be not only generally uninteresting but often pointlessly mean to the subject. The solution? Make powerful images of people that show their humanity by being able to quickly build a connection with the subject. Here are my thoughts on that.

First off, I’ve worked for the last 20 years as a photojournalist. Trying to tell the stories of people worth knowing is what my life is about. I don’t photograph models or celebrities. Instead I’ve photographed captains of industry, grieving mothers, the underdog champion, the brilliant scientist, and victims of circumstance.

My subjects are rarely excited to meet me. They, like most people, don’t make their living based on their image so being photographed by a professional is something that they may have never done before. In addition, to have me point a lens at them and broadcast, in some cases, intimate or painful moments of their lives is at least an initially strange or possibly very uncomfortable notion. Yet just about every day I venture out to meet strangers, quickly get them to trust me and through that allow me into their comfort zones so that I can make my work. How do I, and thousands of other news and documentary photographers get people to drop their cautious guard and accept me into the inner workings of their world?

1) You Must Care About Your Subject

Really. There is no substitute for this. The more sensitive the subject/situation that you are photographing the more you need to put yourself in their position, ask how they feel and how they would want to be treated by a stranger. I would say that at the very least you must be in some way personally emotionally invested, in a positive way, in your subject. Think about the moment that you are about to capture and the emotional context of the subject. What is their emotional state? Is he shy? Is she having a rough day? Is everything on the line? Are they wary of outsiders?

This photo is from a project of mine where I documented the life of a young lady who wanted to be the Colorado State Rodeo Queen. I had spent many days with Rachel as she prepared for the big day: the pageant. This is not a beauty contest. Although most people know them for their looks and fanciful outfits, though appearance does count, Rodeo Queens are ambassadors for the sport of rodeo and their knowledge must be wide ranging and exhaustive. Rachel and the other contestants would go through a day long series of intense interviews that tested their range of knowledge on the sport, horsemanship, and state history. Here Rachel is checking her makeup before she starts her first interview. The time that I had spent with her prior let her now that I would show her and her fellow contestants with respect and show a part of the sport that few see. I also knew how much was on the line for her. Although she radiated calm, I knew that she was trying not to throw up. I wanted to show her poise through her intense anxiety. 

2) Your Subject Must Know From the Beginning That You Will Do Them No Harm and Respect Them

They have to know that you will not exploit them in any way. This gentleman was the owner of the only store in a small and somewhat isolated mountain town that also  occupied an historic building. Due to the decline in local population he could no longer afford to stay in business after 30+ years. I felt his personal pain, and his feelings of letting down the community that he loves. He told me that he was less worried about him not having a business as much as worried about the people he was, in essence, leaving behind. When the store was to close three days later the residents would have an hour drive round trip to get to a store to buy food, turning that town into a food desert. I spent a total of maybe 20 minutes with him but he knew from the get go that I was there to document this event in a way that honors both him and his communities loss.

3) Be a Real Person: Be Yourself

You don't have to be their best friend but you should let the subject know something about you so that they can see clearly that you are real and decent. Just like when you meet someone in a normal social situation, have a conversation, and get to know each other. No fakery, no flattery. People know when they are being played. Being a good conversationalist is a great strength to have here. However you should know when to engage and when to pull back.

I was given the assignment to cover the story of a woman who watched her daughter be killed in a car accident directly in front of the church where the daughter was about to be married. Yes, the daughter died in her wedding dress. Cheery story huh? After doing some photos at her home we eventually went to the grave of the daughter which she had not visited since the funeral. For most of the time that we were together she and I were very chatty. She got to know me and I her, building a rapport, which also gave me the ability to get photos of her in a variety of moods. However I knew how much pain she was in so when we got to the cemetery I changed my approach. I basically shut up, took a few steps back, and let her deal with her emotions in her own way. 

4) Be Patient 

Just as you would wait for a sunset or animal to move into a critical part of your landscape photo, so you must be patient with people. If they know that you are looking for photos, and they don't mind your presence, take your time The quiet moments are often the best and most telling but they take the investment of time on your part. When things get quiet with my subjects they will often think that even though they are not performers you somehow are expecting them to do something "interesting". I will tell them that I don't expect anything and just want to hang around for a bit. During these times I often make some throw away frames: ones that I'm not really interested in, just so that they keep seeing me making photos and they then don't get self conscious thinking that they are wasting my time. 

In 2012 I spent a few days in the tiny town of Manilla, Iowa looking at the presidential caucus from the perspective of the little farming communities that dominate the state and thus their politics. The town had one gas station, one restaurant, one bar, and one store. These places are all hubs of the community and are great places to find people in the course of their lives. I walked into the aptly named "Tiny's Grocery" one evening and the only person there was Jim the manager. He said that he hadn't a customer in an hour and was thinking of closing early. I had told him about my assignment and asked if I could stay. He obliged and we made a bit of conversation. When he went outside to see if there was any possible foot traffic at sunset in a town of only 700 people, I followed. I got this shot that showed how empty towns like this generally are, illustrating a key element of my story. Three minutes later he locked the door and went home. If I had walked in, saw an empty store and been told that he was going to close early, I may have just left too but I felt that there was something telling that would happen and I gave it the quiet time necessary. 

6) Be Invisible in Plain Sight

What you are always trying for is to be seen, accepted, and then almost ignored. Oh you are there alright, but nobody really cares. This is not as easy as it might seem. The classic approach of being "the fly on the wall" works for many photographers. What you do is after making the initial contact with the subject and gaining their trust you essentially go mute; you just stop talking or in any way drawing any attention to yourself. You quietly move about getting the shots that you want with little more than a nod or smile to keep that connection alive. Legendary documentary photographer Eugene Richards is the master of this. His ability to get criminals, drug users, and other people who would normally want to have nothing to do with being photographed to allow him to make supremely intimate photos of their lives is astounding. He says that it is because he is, in his words, the world's most boring person. As a result he is, he says, totally forgettable even when he has his lens just inches from your face. Something to strive for!

I was covering a candle light vigil for a local high school student who committed suicide. I saw this group of students in a circle. I believe that all I said was something like, "Hello, were you friends of hers?" and they all nodded yes. I replied "Thanks for coming" and then shut up. After taking a few tight face shots I saw that there weren't any tears or overt emotion. They were all quietly dealing with their pain, but together and that's when I crouched down and pointed my up at them from inside their protective circle. 

7) Join the Party

On the other hand sometimes you can't stand back but instead you have to jump right in. David Alan Harvey is a master of this and when the subject's energy is high I tend to go with that method. In some cases if you are quietly slinking about with your camera in the "fly on the wall" approach, the people will see you as standing out by willingly not being part of the action. If there is a parade, get in line with the marchers. If there is festival happily join the crowd. If you are sharing in their experience the subjects will see you as one of them.

When he was showing his images from his National Geographic story on the Blues Trail of Mississippi, David Alan Harvey was asked how a tall white guy from the east coast with a camera was so easily accepted by all of these local black folk that he was showing in his photos. In particular a great shot of four fellows playing a guitar and singing on their front porch in a small back woods town. He said that day was very hot and as he was walking down the street he saw the four men. Realizing that he had just passed a store he back tracked to purchase a six pack of beer. He then walked up to them, handed each one a cold beer, and said "Hi, I'm Dave". That was all it took.

While shooting a feature story on flashback "80's" nights at clubs I got this shot. Full frame, no cropping, I rarely do that anyway. There is almost no way that I could have gotten this if I was just standing quietly by the side of the dance floor. Instead I was in the crowd dancing along with all the patrons. I saw this couple who were really into the moment and waited until they really let go.

Getting close means taking risks. It means extending yourself and from time to time being rejected. The great thing is that if you approach people with an open heart and a respectful patient mind your subjects will largely be accepting of you and your work. Heck, they may even be flattered that you picked them out of the crowd. Regardless if you want to make real photos of people in the flow of their lives there is, to me, no other way to do it. Not only does it produce more powerful, emotional and impactful images, they can also be far more real and truthful. 

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Rob Davis's picture

Rules for you are not necessarily good rules for others. Some of the best street photographer ignored most, if not all, of these rules:

Bruce Gilden
Lisette Model
Mark Cohen
Vivian Maier

Not to mention many otherwise unknown photojournalists. Imagine if historians only recorded flattering stories.

Julian Ray's picture

Great article Jonathan. You take on a touchy subject, one that is bound to elicit strong opinions from all sides.
In my years of working with people in travel and journo photography I have to agree with all your points and I would add one more. Maybe the most important one of all.
Be generous. Always be generous in the way you portray them. Never try to exploit or ridicule your subject but try to show them at their best.

Jonathan Castner's picture

I agree. I detest the exploitation of fellow humans. I feel that as non-sociopaths we must particularly follow the rule that if you say that you will do something for the subject, such as send them a print, then you MUST do so. Otherwise you are conning them and lack any integrity.

I did a story a number of years ago about a woman who along with her mother and daughter escaped a polygamous cult in a tiny town in Utah. They were dirt poor. At the end of the shoot I took them to the local ice cream shop and offered to buy them anything that they wanted. Heck, expense account right? All they wanted was a small cone each. No sundae, not even a dipped cone. I was shocked but that was the greatest luxury that they had had in years. It was like their own personal Christmas to be in the back of my rental car with the AC going to enjoy a simple soft serve cone. I was humbled and floored. The small gestures often mean the most.

Humanity first.

BTW Julian, I love that you draw us into the soulful and beautiful eyes of your subjects. I can tell that you care about them.


Julian Ray's picture

Jonathan, thank you for your kind words and it's clear we share some of the same ideals. Now, you have to share that article (did you craft images for it?) with us!

Julian Ray's picture

I love how you frame your visual ideas and how you use motion to convey emotions. Your writing is great and I would love to see more of you visual work. Keep on sharing with us!

Ian Oliver's picture

<b>"if photographers are often taking an impersonal, disconnected, or worse, invasive approach to their subjects then "how good are those photos really?" "</b>

Many of them quite good actually.

That's a quite arrogant and inaccurate statement you've made. You're a good photographer and overall this is a good article but you need to recognize that one size does not fit all

Frederik van Lambalgen's picture

Is consistant with the vision of John Free, he also is worth to listen to.

Jonathan Castner's picture

Oh yeah! I've been a big fan of John Free for a number of years now. Great guy, big heart and wonderful images.Good call Frederick.