Once in a while I’ll get a Facebook message or email from an aspiring photographer: “How do I become good at photography?” I usually ignore these questions because frankly I feel I’m in no position right now to educate someone. However, today I felt different after talking a stroll around my old college stomping grounds. While people-watching the students I noticed a lot of them kept their noses to their phones and seemed to be stuck in their own bubble. An old classmate I ran into mentioned that her younger brother spends most of his time socializing with friends via headset + League of Legends. There’s nothing wrong with this, but if you want to exponentially become good at photography the trick is to:
Talk to Everyone!
and don’t stop talking ♫ cue Miley Cyrus’s We Can’t Stop ♫ –Especially if you’re trying to get into portrait photography. One of my favorite quotes from legendary photographer Richard Avedon explains this idea well:
I often feel that people come to me to be photographed as they would go to a doctor or a fortune teller –to find out how they are. So they’re dependent on me. I have to engage them. Otherwise there’s nothing to photograph. The concentration has to come from me and involve them. Sometimes the forces of it grows so strong that sounds in the studio go unheard. Time stops. We share a brief, intense intimacy. But its unearned. It has no past… no future. And when the sitting is over –when the picture is done –there’s nothing left except the photograph.
What separates an alright photograph from a great one, is whether or not it conveys a punctum (that rip-your-heart-then-give-it-back-yo you, personally touching detail, or direct relationship/connection feeling. You can read up more about that concept in Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography.) To capture or create this feeling from a photograph as the person behind the camera you really have to dig deep and either pull something out or exert something into the photo subject (oh hey! This sounds a lot like directing!) You can’t do this if you’re shy and socially awkward. As a photographer you must be confident and develop the ability to connect with your subject. It’s a very strange feeling to be photographed –imagine this scenario.
You’re in a room with another person who’s analyzing you through a big metal box covering their face and doesn’t say a word to remind you that you’re a person. How uncomfortable is that?
As Avedon said you have to engage them. Otherwise there’s nothing to photograph. The best way to practice engaging people is simply to talk to different people each day. Find ways to connect with total strangers and you’re golden.