Last weekend I was in Newcastle for the Hadrian Cup rugby tournament, with the aim to meet and photo teams for Portraits Of Pride. After a slow start I was rushed off my feet however I did my best to ensure I spent time with everyone and that the last portrait was just as good as the first. I have mentioned in a previous post that I aim to spend at approximately 5 minutes with each subject and, after some comments from the weekend, here is a more detailed explanation of why I do this.
The Hadrian Cup is the biggest LGBT sporting event in the UK which saw 400 players and supporters descending on Percy Park in North Shields. The annual tens tournament was hosted and organised by the Newcastle Ravens, the North East’s only LGBT inclusive rugby team. While the action was happening on the pitch, I was set up in the clubhouse waiting to photo players during a break in their schedule or once they were knocked out of the competition. This meant a slow start with only a handful players photographed in the first few hours, however I then found myself with a queue of people from 1308hrs until the end of the day at 1749hrs. In total I had over 70 people step in front of the camera during the course of the day.
When I take a portrait I have a set format to ensure I tick all my required boxes, which is vital when working to a time constraint of just 5 minutes per subject. The format is this;
- I introduce myself, with a handshake and ask the subject’s name. I then complete a release form, on my iPad, which includes a player’s name, their snapshot, and their signature.
- I spend a few minutes talking to them, taking notes of pertinent details for accurate captioning later. I have a set list of questions starting with what position they play, how long they’ve been playing rugby for and for how long they’ve been at their current club. This information then steers the conversation for the remaining time.
- At a reasonable break in conversation I focus my attention to the subject’s face and move any lighting as required and offer direction to the subjects. This is to ensure I have variety of lighting and facial directions in the end product.
- I ask the subjects to close their eyes and consider what the sport, or their club, means to them. I request they think about something personal or important and to focus on that feeling or memory. And then, when they’re ready, to open their eyes at which stage I press the shutter and take three frames. While their eyes are closed I compose the portrait so that I am able to take the frames as soon as their eyes open. This is key to capturing a subject’s immediate expression; after three frames their facial expression changes and that emotional or feeling is gone.
- Finally, I shake their hand again and thank the subject for their time.
Striped back to bare basics I am asking people, most of whom I’ve never met, to allow me to photograph them. It is one thing for someone to take a selfie on their phone or have their photograph taken by a friend. However being photographed by a stranger, surrounded by lighting equipment, with a camera aimed at them is a different kettle of fish and can be intimidating. As such, a subject’s guard can understandably goes up. It is unreasonable to expect to take a meaningful portrait of someone unless time has been spent building a rapport with them. To this end I also offer information about myself where appropriate to ensure conversation is not one way traffic and to build a level of empathy and trust. Time with a subject also allows me to familiarise myself with a their face and set a baseline for their expressions. This is important for me as I analyse a subject’s expression, through the viewfinder, as I take their portrait to gauge how accurate the portrait is compared to the person I have just been talking to as, ultimately, I want to take a portrait with emotional honesty. More often than not I recognise the person in the photograph. However sometimes, and even allowing for a wide gamut of expressions, I do not. Often this is due to not photographing in a private space and the subject having an audience of their team mates making jokes. While at other times the subject may artificially take themselves to a certain mental space or even try a forced reaction. If I find it hard to reconcile a portrait with the subject I ask them to close their eyes and repeat this step of the process.
For some my approach can be a surprise as they expect the experience to be akin to a conveyor belt; ie walk on, walk off. Thus my reading of facial expressions, body language, and vocabulary queues can be unexpected (during Phase2 I commented to one player that control was important to them. The reply was this, ‘Who are you? You got that in 5 seconds. Took three sessions with my therapist before they understood that.’). Nonetheless there are parallels between my photographic method and playing rugby or sport in general. Both require technical and also non verbal communication skills; in rugby these include reading a pitch and knowing where space is and looking at the angles and directions of an opposition player’s eyes, shoulders and feet to anticipate their next move.
Portrait results, from subjects, are as varied as the individuals who I interact with. They depend on what the subject is thinking about and also importantly if anything serious is occurring in their life. Positive results include the subject who started playing rugby to kickstart his life after being made single and redundant. He has since lost four stone in weight and has a new boyfriend and job. Another notable subject was the team manager who was drugged on a night out and regained consciousness as he was falling from, having been thrown off, a six storey building. Despite a horrific experience I see, in his portrait, a confident, strong individual who is not only rising to the challenges life has put in his way, but someone who is also keen to offer back to sport to help others.
My approach can also result in portraits that show vulnerability and pain. These include players who have suffered from injury and also people dealing with personal loss and issues which 80minutes on a sports pitch can not help with. As it is not my aim to upset anyone I only show these images with consent from the subjects and should that consent not be given, then those images are not shown. One image, that will remain in the archive, was of a player after he suffered a repeat, and career ending, injury. Having attended Hartpury College and been room mates with a current England international, at the time of the portrait he was still processing his professional dreams going up in smoke.
I jest that my job involves pressing click and that I work in increments of 1/200 of a second; I pride myself on making my job look easy. Indeed everything described in this post occurs in the space of just 5 minutes. However despite how straightforward these five minutes may seem, every step is designed, every angle considered and every nuance calculated to ensure the best possible result.