Empathy Training. An immersion course for a photographer.

We're all such good artists and we know our way around cameras, lenses and lights like Zen masters but are we really that good when it comes to establishing a rapport or a good feeling with our portrait subjects? Do we really understand just how nervous and uncomfortable a lot of people can get in front of the camera? Do we understand how our demeanor or studio habits can exacerbate the problem? And do we have real empathy for the position that we put our clients and friends into when we have them sit in front of the Cyclops of imaging.

I rarely have my photograph taken, and generally when I do it's an informal snap shot at a conference or social event. So I am always shocked and surprised at how uncomfortable I feel when I'm asked to sit in front of a camera and have my portrait taken. I understand the fear on a number of levels. On one level I find it disheartening when the camera shows me the disparity between my carefully crafted self-image and the reality of my true image. I still think of myself as young and well put together and untouched by the ravages of aging that affect so many other people my age. But when I look at the resulting clinical evidence I am dismayed and disheartened to see that there are bags under my eyes, a little wattle under my chin and various age spots and skin discolorations peppered across my face like the canvas a more reserved Jackson Pollack painting.

Similarly, I still believe that I am in fantastic physical space and near my optimum weight with muscles as toned as a Stradivarius violin string but imagine the horror when I look at a proffered photograph and find that some sneaky and malicious, rogue retoucher has added a good ten pounds (or more) to me in contrast to the pristine body image I keep in my mind. And he's added the poundage in all the wrong places!  It's enough to make me contemplate surrendering to the inevitable entropy and decay. But even scarier is the realization that I can't muster (anymore) the exact expression that would make me seem, to the external audience, as brilliant and debonair and witty and charming as I think I must be inside. I'm inclined to think that the world is being defrauded and my value devalued in the service of frozen imagery. Yikes! We haven't even begun to explore the sniping intimations of ever shortening mortality yet. "Over my shoulder I do hear time's winged chariot drawing near..." (Andrew Marvell, "To His Coy Mistress").

I think all of us brilliant and strident portrait artists could use a bit of empathy training and that's just what I got for three long days last week. I'll never treat a portrait sitter in quite the same way again. That's certain.

If you are a regular blog reader you probably know that I spent some time last week as the "talent" on a video project and I was as nervous going into this as I've ever been. I was certain that I'd forget the subject (photography), forget my lines (because we were doing it extemporaneously), forget to breathe, and I would eventually collapse in total defeat after a producing a collage of failed and embarrassing attempts. I was convinced that after ten minutes of shaking, fumbling and dry mouth mumbling that the producers would step in and cancel the project and I'd be stripped of my plane ticket and left to my own devices at the Greyhound Bus station.

And that's exactly how my first five minutes on camera seemed to go. Time stood still, and not in a good way. I did flub my first lines, badly. And my mouth did go drier than a west Texas well.

After a re-boot I finally got it together and started to string together semi-coherent sentences that didn't shake and actually made some grammatical sense. With practice I got a bit better and the fear started to ebb away. And when I finally felt fully comfortable with the video cameras I was confronted by my next nemesis, the still photographer...

Seems that we needed to get a headshot of me. Something I avoid like artificial sweeteners or TV shows that feature Honey Boo Boo. The charming woman who photographed me was quiet and must have assumed that, after all these years of doing photography, I could direct myself. But, of course, that didn't take into consideration the paralysis caused by the Biblical flood of cortisol gushing through my system, interfering with my limbic system and beyond. Torture. I tried one pose after another but I couldn't find a comfortable way to turn my head, and my posture looked like bad origami. But eventually it was over. I survived being portraitized and the shaking subsided much later,  after several glasses of hotel bar wine.

So...to my point. Now I feel I understand what my portrait subjects feel when they are asked by their bosses or spouses or marketing departments to make the grim pilgrimage to my studio to sit and be inventoried by the soulless camera and the ominous photographer. And I'll be doing several things that I think will help all of us have a better experience.

1. I'll greet my subjects as they come through the door with a warm handshake and a warmer smile and welcome them into the space.

2. Before we get started we'll sit down across from each other and I'll talk them through the process and try to make it sound as easy and straight forward as humanly possible. I'll ask all kinds of questions about themselves in order to learn more and get them talking about familiar stuff. Comfortable, familiar stuff.

3. I'll have every light and camera I need to use set up and ready before my subjects arrive so they don't have to sit and wonder if their presence has triggered some sort of emergency reset.

4. We'll make jokes about technique at my expense to mitigate any implied hierarchical structure.

5. When we start I'll ask them for suggestions instead of pushing ahead with my plan.

6. As we shoot I'll give good directions and show them by example the kinds of poses and gestures I want. Even if it makes me feel silly.

7. Every time we re-frame I'll deliver positive feedback.

8. If my subject seems nervous or anxious I'll slow down and talk them through the process again and do what I can to make them feel at ease.

9. My biggest strategy will be to systematically demystify the process at every step so nothing seems alien or scary.

10. My overwhelming goal will be to make sure my sitter/subject has fun and leaves feeling as though they've conquered the ravages of time in a beautiful and serene way. And that we are a team with one goal.....to make them look as good as their own mental self-image tells them they are.

My total immersion was transformative. It's not easy being on the other side of the camera. Self-revelation is an act of courage. Especially for us who are not perfect. And that's pretty much everyone.


Bill Beebe said...

Thanks for using an E-1, even if it's just as a visual aid.

ChazL said...

I don't do much portrait photography, so I have little to add here- but I can certainly identify with your feelings. On the (blessedly) rare occasions that I'm in front of the camera I experience the same emotions.

This one should really be required reading for all portrait photographers. Thanks for an interesting and thoughtful post.

Patrick Dodds said...

Nice writing Kirk, a fine post. No. 3 made me chuckle out loud.

Anton Wilhelm Stolzing said...

Great article of yours, as so often. My advice to photographers: change sides! Have your picture taken frequently. This way you have the personal experience of how it is! Cartier-Bresson went mad when his picture was taken because he thought he needed his anonymity. I have no sympathy at all for this attitude. A great photographer he certainly was, but not a nice person.

Paul Gero said...

Great stuff Kirk!

Craig Yuill said...

Your list looks really good Kirk. Giving an explanation of what you will be doing is a great idea. I must say that tact and sincerity are two things I have appreciated when I have been the subject of a photo. One of the more uncomfortable photography-related experiences I have had was when I was part of a family portrait, and the photographer came across as a much-too-happy, obnoxious phony. He acted much like restaurant servers often did in the 1980s, a complete stranger with a never-ending smile who spoke and acted like we were lifelong friends. I think my sister winced every time she was referred to as "Sister Susie" as he was positioning us. I like it when people are friendly and warm, but not when they are being over the top and/or insincere about it.

Corwin Black said...

Yep, nice camera.. one of few 4/3 with "Kodak inside".

Anonymous said...


I've been reading for a while (since 2009? maybe earlier?), and I think this is one of the most simultaneously transparent and useful posts I've seen in some time.

Thank you for sharing...I truly appreciate it.


Dr. Singer said...

Thank you, Kirk, enjoyable article and realization of yours. Personally, Number 5 is most difficult at the outset of the shoot, as many subjects are nervous and want the photographer to "take control" of the session. That said, many of my best shots have come when the client breaks camp at the end and we just have fun...so 5a) should be the best advice ever: Just Have Fun!