The difference between a professional and a semi-professional camera can be a single grain of sand. I slapped my D7000 against my sticky palm, conjuring chuckles from the family in front of my lens as I attempted to dislodge whatever had frozen my non-weather sealed scroll wheel in place. In any other context this would have been great—making a subject laugh is the most effective way to lower his guard for long enough to snap a few exposures. But right now I was worried that my trusty D7000 was on its final frames—mid-desert, mid-assignment, and at a point in my career where her replacement would be far from an easy. I shook the camera body a few times to no avail. Then, before exhausting the smiles in front of me, switched my focus from single-point to centre and stopped down to make sure the detail I’d originally intended to compose around wasn’t thrown beyond the depth of field. My lens laboured to readjust. I snapped a frame. Then another. A glance at my LCD told me this wasn’t my best work but I handed the body off to the family patriarch to share with his wife and children. Were they disappointed, having seen my previous work?
First assignments never run smoothly.
I’d cobbled together enough filler, spun enough thought pieces out of vapid interviews and plastered together enough feeble profiles with obscure biographical facts by now to know that preconceptions can be a young journalist’s worst nightmare.
“You have about 10,000 bad words in you and it’s best to get those out of you as soon as possible,” I’d been told during my time in the University of Victoria’s writing program. I imagined the same was true with hours on assignment. And given the way my Peru Portrait Project was going so far I wasn’t sure I’d ever reach the other side.
One month ago, when I learned Passion Passport would be sending me to Northern Peru to capture portraits of the Piura region as part of their ‘The Bucket List Initiative’ grant, I’d have told you the very opposite. This would be my break through. I’d done similar work informally in the past: in Myanmar, Nepal, and Bangladesh. How could I not build upon that success now that I had a budget, the support of sponsors, and another year’s worth of photography experience under my belt?
Having earned the grant through a voting process I knew my peers at home encouraged the project. I seemed to get the same amount of enthusiasm from the Peruvian photographers I reached out to during the month leading up to my trip. Even my seat-mates on the flight from LAX to LIM applauded the idea. In Lima I warmed up by approaching locals in Miraflores, Centro, and Barranco. I handed out cards and collected e-mails for five days beneath the burro belly skies.
But then, after disembarking a local LAN flight in Piura, two things changed. First: my ability to court conversation and sniff out leads was all but snuffed out as I was forced to become totally reliant on my rusted-if-even-there Spanish. Second: shy locals became less inclined to pose for portraits even when I was able to get my intentions across.
In Spain, it’s illegal to take someone’s photograph without his or her consent. The same is true in Brazil, Japan, and, with some exceptions, throughout most of the developed world. I don’t always agree with this law—it can be incredibly detrimental to professional journalism—but for the most part I think it emphasizes one significant fact: what makes photographing people unique among the documentary arts is that it’s a mutually consensual act.
While writing requires little more than memory or imagination, portrait photography is the product of a real-time interaction between two human beings. You can misrecord the perfect quote and still paraphrase it. A snapshot can never be perfectly staged. A strong image is the perfect blend of premeditation, chemistry and serendipity. The success of my photographs are almost directly related to the amount of intimacy shared during act of procuring them. But given the short time frame I had to complete this particular project, I no longer had the luxury of long slow introductions. Nine words hung heavy in the back of my mind from moment I made eye-contact with a stranger on the street. ¿Puedo por favor tome su fotografía para mi proyecto? - They slipped out at awkward points in conversation and glazed over even the most welcoming of eyes.
The family of five in front of me were a rare exception. When my host, Nicola, pitched me on a few days in Yacila while she caught up on her thesis she’d promised a sleepy yet warm-hearted town hewn into the otherwise abandoned cliffs of the Pacific.
“People are friendly there,” she said. “When I need help this is my favourite place to come.”
Although none of the adjectives she used were wrong per-say, both seemed to take a backseat to the villagers’ inherent shyness. Each smile returned was done with minimal eye contact. If I did convince a Yacilian to pose for a portrait it was done so with tight-lipped indifference and almost immediately asked to be deleted. The only residents that seemed to feel strongly about my presence were the hairless dogs that nipped at my heals as I walked out of the dunes that surrounded the city. Or the fishermen that returned to town each evening, their guards eroded by 10 hours of labour and at least as many beers.
It was amidst this Trojan horse of drunkenness that I’d been invited into the family's house in the first place. Now as the women scrolled through my images using one of the few functioning buttons on my camera, bottles of Pilsen were sloshed around a circle of men crossed-legged on the sticky floor. The sun-baked nephew who’d first approached me in the street flipped through the May issue of National Geographic I’d brought with me. He paused at each full-page image and looked up inquisitively as if to ask if the photographs were mine.
“I wish,” I said in English, wondering if the sentiment translated. "I'm trying to figure out how he does it." We paused for a minute on Jim Richardson’s portraits of Andean potato farmers a couple hundred kilometres to the south.
The next morning I awoke with two useable frames on my camera, both taken after the original family portrait. It was more than previous evenings but still they’d spent two or so hours a-piece to procure. I’d have to move quicker if I were to satisfy the quota I’d set for myself: ten portraits per day over the next 15 days. The first thing I did was approach two older gentlemen seated on a shaded veranda outside the village church. They were hesitant but complied. Yet as per usual something was missing in their stony gazes and empty eyes.
I have very few hard rules regarding my photographic workflow but here’s one: I never, ever bring out my camera on my first day in a new country.
This is the result of some scathing criticism I once received from photojournalist in Cairo. I’d asked him for advice on selling my travel content and one sentence of his response stood out: travel photography isn’t even a real genre.
I first dismissed this comment as photo-snobbery. One year later, it makes a lot of sense. Every powerful image has a story that should resonate with an audience regardless of where he’s from. While my images may fall under the travel umbrella for fellow Canadians, for a Peruvian they’d be classified as documentary work. In order for my project to be truly successful I’d have to work that would appeal to both. I needed to take time to find out what those stories really where.
There’s a quote by celebrated landscape photographer Ansell Adams that goes like this:
“You don't make a photograph just with a camera. You bring to the act of photography all the pictures you have seen, the books you have read, the music you have heard, the people you have loved.”
Since portraiture is a two-man dance, this baggage applies to both you and the subject. The frame you create, and the story it tells, will be defined by your collective experiences up to that point.
When these experiences interact constructively it shows. When the photographer and his subject see, understand, and empathize with one another it creates a sort of harmony. The image is charged. Of course, when one fails to empathize with his subject, one also runs the risk of destructive interference. Your narratives tangle, twist or never even meet. Although this can't always be avoided the best start is to learn as much as you can about your subject. Because without his contribution to the frame your capture is little more than empty light.
The reason my images of the family in Yacila held potency was because their boozy openness, my frustration with the camera, and our mutual curiosity of Richardson’s work were all wrapped up in two 1/150 second exposures. The two gentlemen I’d shot in the Yacila church plaza weren’t responsible for the deadness in their eyes. I was.
The next morning I packed my bags and paid for my guest house. I waved down a packed minibus headed for the hub-town of Paita. There I’d link up with Nicola and head deeper down the fanged coastline in pursuit of faces.
I loaded my camera first into my shoulder bag, beneath my books and jacket. By creating an extra barrier of resistance between it and myself I hoped I'd force myself extra time to consider every shot I took. I had no doubt that slowing down my work flow even further would mean abandoning the quota I’d set for myself before heading on assignment. But I was no longer satisfied with pictures, I wanted stories. And how could I share someone’s story if I hadn’t attempted to live it first.