Remember Joel Addams the black and white specialist we interviewed way back in September 2011? We’ll he’s back with a new book and a guest post on interacting with your subjects.
I had read and examined and studied Steve McCurry’s book PORTRAITS with awe and fascination years ago and knew that it was a direction that I wanted to take. But in reality, my answer to myself was, “How?” I wasn’t employed by National Geographic or some other large international editorial magazine. I did have a Canon 20D and a couple of lenses. I approached the subject because I realized that I had other interests that were connected to people all over the world, interests like health, medicine, business, economics. I became involved with a great non-profit in my area, Hope Alliance, and we began working together on some of their projects in Iquitos, Peru. Some minor costs were defrayed, and I had many more (and more time consuming) responsibilities than photographing. In fact, most of the time, my camera was not clicking. Was this bad? Not how I think about things. My priorities as a photographer do not necessarily supersede those of the situations unless I am hired only for the images. In some ways, I actually prefer to be involved with a camera secondarily and then I fulfil some of my needs to assist and volunteer in the “main” work. I choose cameras and lenses that are easily portable and not too large, but still produce excellent images with sizes that are large enough for professional uses.
The opportunity to photograph in Haiti, for example, after the earthquake of 2010 was a great example of being needed as an assistant in more demanding areas, and in that case it was with a hospital organization that was formed spur-of-the-moment and was actually the first civilian flight to land in Port-au-Prince after the earthquake (instead of the Dominican Republic). My tasks consisted of helping the staff who took up posts in the General Hospital there. It was busy, for sure, and I often felt a little torn when I wanted to just photograph for a few minutes. One of the images from that experience is on Page 72 as a full page spread. The child was being cared for by the staff in the children’s tent at the General Hospital, and the parents gave permission for me to photograph. Several of the people whom I trust to evaluate my photography have commented that there is something about the expression of the child and the way her head is turned to the left that makes it a particular interesting photograph. For me, it represented the general condition of the city at a time when chaos was first being managed.
The attitudes and the overall reaction of people to the camera also vary widely. Sometimes I elect to approach a person, talk with them, and then ask them if it would be fine to take their picture. This usually works, but does lead to a situation where the person may “dust off” a bit in order to be ready for the camera. Interestingly though, in other countries people do not have the attitude that they need to “square off” to the camera or smile. Thankfully. Sometimes they don’t even move from their position, such as the sheepskin worker in Fez, Morocco on page 79. He is perfectly comfortable with the camera being somewhere in the vicinity and continues to work, albeit slower, so that I can do my work. Other times, I don’t ask to take the photography and instead approach the person after the fact. I then show them what I’ve done and ask for their approval. It is pretty obvious to see if they approve or not, and if not, it’s always courteous to simply delete the photographs. My personal favourites of the “unknowing” shot was in Cairo, Egypt when traveling with my college buddy, Josh. We were seated at a café table and I couldn’t help but love the image of a local man smoking the hooka. I was using a Canon 20D and a 70-200 mm IS lens at the time and was able to move closer to him while also zooming a bit. The spread of his images on pages 62-63 reflect a calm man, taking his time with the hooka, with a gaze to the left that I found compositionally interesting. I felt like he reflected the quintessential Cairo man of his age.
I do hate it when people say, “There’s no right answer for…” how to approach people. I think there is. It’s what you feel comfortable doing and what may bring the best portrait for the situation. That may be like saying there is no right answer, but once you start to get a feel for how people react and what is appropriate, something will always feel right to you. In the end, having an interesting portrait of a person with interesting light can be the highlight of my trip. It’s a long way from where I started photography in the landscape thinking that it was the only thing to shoot. Portraits have let me explore the human condition and become interested in topics that I never thought I would be: healthcare, economics, politics, trade. I’ve let photographing and now some filmmaking become avenues to learn more about the world.
Power of the Glance: Travel Portraits in Black and White is available on the iTunes Book store. Click here to get your copy.
Joel Addams distributes with Aurora Photos, a specialized photographic agency in Portland, Maine which focuses on landscape, travel, and outdoor imagery. His credits include National Geographic Online Edition, The Travel Channel, Utah Department of Tourism, as well as editorial and advertising campaigns around the world. His prints are found in private collections around the country and in Europe. His interests have included editorial work, often combined with his personal work and interest in humanitarian issues. Since 2011, he has been working on a documentary on eye care and tissue donation in Asia with the international non-profit Tissue Banks International, set to be released in early 2013. A firm believer in black and white, Joel released his first eBook “Power of the Glance: Travel Portraits in Black and White” on iTunes in December 2012. He explains some of the nuances of his interactions with people.