In the editorial world there is a pretty tight ethics boundary that just about every publication that has a reputation for being a news source adheres to. Basically, you don’t mess with reality. That often makes your job as a photographer easy because if it doesn’t happen you can’t be blamed for not photographing it. However it is also a tough thing when nothing is happening, the light is awful, the environment is worse and time is short. That’s when you start pining for your lights, a good wardrobe for the subject and maybe a gothic cathedral to shoot in. But that’s not reality. That’s portraiture.
Being both a personal and professional Gemini I have two sides to me: the documentarian who likes to show up with nothing more than a D700 body, my 24mm, 50mm and 85mm lenses with a flash that usually doesn’t leave the bag. Then there is the portrait photographer who shows with a backpack full of cameras, lenses, a big case of high powered strobes, a big bag or two of lighting modifiers and stands along with maybe a case of extra stuff so that I can put light in tough places or remove light if I so choose. Then there is the makeup artist and a concept that is often bounced around at a meeting with atleast one editor type and a pre-arrainged location that is deemed to convey the idea that we have for the photo. Oh and there is some person to be in front of my lens.
But given all that extra junk used to switch from “reality” mode to “created reality” mode the guy behind the lens is still the same dude and I try to be the same ethical fellow regardless of how much artifice is brought in.
Since the lens points both ways how you photograph a subject is a indicitive of what kind of person you are. Portraits often say as much about the photographer as they do the subject – so many choices are made by the photographer about the image before the subject even wakes up that day. However to me the subject should not be the photographer. All the work that goes into making the photograph should, in my opinion, reveal something about the subject and not be about the wacky idea that the photographer convinced the subject to go along with.
However many of the “top” editorial portrait photographers are about the idea behind the photo and not really about the subject. Well that may be ok for them but it’s not me. Even if I have a great idea for a portrait I still want you to look at it and see anything except the subject. I want to be a conduit for some aspect of the subject be it their strength, humor, prestige, frailty, sadness or whatever. I want to be drawn to them as a photographer so that my viewers will share that fascination.
I ran across a very thought provoking piece on NPR the other day that was talking about the ethics of portrait photography. Give it a listen and few thought cycles.