Fighting David duChemin in Roma
I have one goal for my travel photography: to become more comfortable and talented at taking portraits of strangers. I’m not talking about the furtive and secretive theft of unsuspecting moments that has become the trend of modern “street photography.”
I prefer to approach and ask to take a portrait. This requires me to be open and show respect and vulnerability. And I’ve been amazed at how many people will agree to having their portrait taken after we’ve spoken for a bit.
I’ve managed to do this a few times now. Let’s be clear, I still suck at it. I stand in the centre of an active square watching hundreds of interesting people strut by before I work up the nerve to approach someone.
But something happens when I see them smile at the reason why I stopped them — their attitude, their beautiful eyes, their amazing outfit. My heart lifts and I feel good about these portraits no matter how they turn out.
Only there would be no portraits of strangers in Rome.
I was in Rome for a week-long mentorship program with David duChemin and Cynthia Haynes. This was my second time and it was very different from the week I spent with them in Venice.
The structure was the same. We have a week to pull together twelve images that share an intentional set of constraints or theme. This forces me to stop just trying to shoot that next “hot, likeable image.” This is about connected images that create something larger — a single body of work.
It is a cathartic and challenging experience that has changed my work, my understanding of my craft and opened my eyes to exploring my inner artist.
Every day is a combination of exploration, journaling and taking “sketch images” that test different directions for our body of work.
On the second day, I handed my phone to David so he could review some of my early sketch images. They were all of the sky with tiny spires or rooftops, everything foreshortened by the extreme upward angle of the camera. I don’t know how I could come up with something that was further from taking a picture of a person.
David wasn’t impressed. That’s what I love about David. He’s different for every attendee, but with me, he doesn’t pull any punches.
I push and fight. It’s who I am. I’m also very sensitive to someone placating me or not saying what they really think or feel.
David pushed for something more challenging. He wanted to know why there were no people in the photos. Please note: not everyone has to have people in their photos, but he had hit the proverbial nail on the head regarding my work.
I wouldn’t admit this, though! So I fought back hard.
“I don’t speak the language!”
Please, earlier that day I had approached and spoken with two very beautiful and interesting Italians. Neither of whom did I ask to take their photo.
“I’m not interested in people.”
This is bullshit so deep that I needed hip waders. People are the SINGLE unifying feature of my work.
“I’m not connecting to Rome. I prefer Venice.”
Aside from the fact that I sounded like a spoiled brat here, it was a deflection. Sure, Rome was harder for me to connect to as a place, but the people… the people were some of the most beautiful and approachable souls I have ever met.
David just nodded at each of my arguments, but I could see the twinkle in his eye. He wasn’t buying a bit of it. And he was right. Which pissed me off and made me fight harder for my photos of buildings.
That night I went walking. Thoughts flow easier when I am in motion and alone in a strange place.
I quickly recognized three key truths for my current experience:
- I was having trouble approaching Italians to ask to take their photo. Fine.
- The grit and colours of Rome were calling out to me. I didn’t want to take pictures of building tops. I wanted to capture the motion and graffiti. I wanted to see the scenes of life.
- And finally, I was having trouble connecting with Rome. It was magical and wonderful, but very different from how I experienced Venice.
It hit me pretty quickly: a self-portrait series. I can’t think of a more challenging topic as I hate being in photos of any kind. And it would allow me to capture the grit of the city and also explore this sense of not belonging.
I remember laughing out loud and startling a dude pissing on a tree. The Italians piss everywhere, by the way. I couldn’t believe I was about to embark on a self-portrait series as I had spent my entire career avoiding photos of myself at all costs.
I’d love to know what you think of this series as it’s a big departure for me.
You can see the rest of the series here: Roma per uno
David, you asked what I would like to do next. I have an answer now. I want to go back to taking portraits of strangers, regardless of language. Perhaps I will manage it in Venice next year?