Getting close to a person in order to make a photo, to tell their story, is less a matter of photography and more a matter of being a human being.
David Alan Harvey's blog recently discussed the issue of getting close to people with a camera. He calls it "eye contact." Good term. Eye contact comes from your basic intention as a photographer.
If your intention is to grab a colorful portrait of a fisherman and go on to the next character, then your images will show only a surface image, a record of the mask the fisherman puts on for every tourist with a point-and-shoot. If your intention is to know more about the life of this fisherman, to perhaps meet his family, learn about his methods . . . your intentions are less photographic and more genuinely human.
As a serious photographer, one with a purpose behind the picture-making process, you need to go deeper, get closer and be vulnerable. That's where the exciting images come from, not from hiding behind long lenses, shooting from across the street, but "up close and personal."
Your intention is what gets you close, not your camera and its lens. It's your basic humanity that does it – that and your curiosity.
Intention goes deeper than a statement of purpose. It goes beyond an assignment or a magazine, or agency. It goes into who you are. If you are a committed storyteller, a passionate and a purposeful photographer, you will have no problem meeting people and getting to know them, for you will also be allowing them to come to know you. If you are to make arresting, truthful and compelling images, you need to get physically close as well as emotionally close to your subjects. If you are in tune with your subject, you will have no problem getting close and being there to record domestic family struggles, the death of a grandfather or the wedding of a daughter. Being a photographer goes beyond f-stops and composition, it goes to the depth of the human experience. If you are "curious" about the life of another human being, if their story resonates with you, if you are a true storyteller, then you will be compelled to get close, and your subjects will want you to. They will insist that you do so.
A student in one of my Uganda workshops spent a few days in a rural village taping African life. A young man had just died of AIDS. The family invited the photographer and our faculty in to tape the process of washing the young man's body and preparing it for burial. The young man's wife, mother and children were there. The student hung back, shooting from the doorway, afraid to enter, feeling embarrassed and out of place. Beth, one of my instructors, pushed the filmmaker into the room, saying, "They want you here. They want you to document this event. Your being here gives the death of this young man relevance and meaning." The resulting series of images is compelling and truthful. The filmmaker was changed by the event and by her place in it as a storyteller. She is now a committed filmmaker and photographer, who returns to Uganda each time we hold a workshop there to help others over the threshold of resistance to get close and be involved.
I've been interviewed countless times for television and documentaries. The best interviews, the ones where I get deeper into myself than I had intended, are always the best, but it takes a special relationship to get me to go the extra mile and share something that is deeply personal. For, if I want to share these inner stories (and we all do), getting them out is not easy, even for me, a seasoned storyteller myself, so a good interviewer is essential.
As born storytellers, we have a mission in life . . . to tell the world's stories. These can be personal stories, autobiographical: your father's death, the birth of your first child, your first broken heart . . . . As professional storytellers, we are always telling the stories of others, but these stories are best told when the story of our subjects is also our story . . . something that is universally human. For, if it "touches" us, then there is a chance it will resonate with our audience and we will have made the world a better place for the shared stories we bring forth.
So, getting close to your subjects is not difficult, it's actually easier than getting close to our inner selves, but in the process of telling these stories, we may, just may, understand ourselves better, too.
This means, sharing yourself with others. It's not as difficult as it may sound. Bring a small booklet of your portraits with you as you travel. When you find a person you want to photograph, show them the book. This gives them the idea that you are serious about what you are doing, and will show them in as good a light, both actually and metaphorically. Magnum photographer Bruce Davidson did this when as a young man he was working on his book "East 100 Street," a book of images from blackest Harlem. He had a small portfolio of portraits he could show to people he met on the street. Before he knew it, he was invited into people's homes to photograph the grandmother, the entire family. Following one of her lectures, a student asked Mary Ellen Mark if she hid her camera when she first went into a community, so they got to know her before she brought out the camera. "No," she said. "I have my camera with me all the time. I'm not embarrassed, or trying to hide who I am and what I am doing. I want them to know from the very first that I am a photographer. To do otherwise is dishonest."
Share your passion and your vision; the world will open up to you. In the process, your photographs will be as much about you as they are about the people you meet and photograph. Do not be afraid to be vulnerable.