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Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Human Connection

Learn how to make room for your subjects to reveal themselves in your images

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I didn't set out to become a portrait photographer with an international focus. No, most of my work came from the most ordinary sources—requests to shoot local events at my children's schools, your everyday, ordinary family portraiture and the occasional shoot of friends newly engaged, married or having a first baby.

All that changed, however, when an African friend asked me to visit her children who were living with her mother back home in Rwanda. My photography took on a whole new dimension. These would be the first images my friend would see of her children after a nearly two-year separation. I needed to capture these girls in their very essence. These weren't just images to grab off a shot list—this was a history to document with the hope for a reunion in the distant future.

I rented lenses, packed my gear and made the 18-hour plane ride, not sure what to expect. My bags were packed with all kinds of clothing and much-needed supplies for the girls, but when I arrived, I was surprised to learn my camera was truly the only thing that mattered. Every single person I met, including the girls, wanted their picture taken. Strangers, relatives, neighbors—it didn't matter. The camera was the thing, and there was no point in trying to maintain professional distance. Over and over again, I met people who were eager to be seen. I soon realized it was my job to bear witness, and not only to the images and scenes that were meaningful to me. My subjects had their own agenda, and when I was willing to follow, I was rewarded with images and emotions my lens had never seen.

The images from this trip became the cornerstone of my fledgling portfolio, and a year later, these same photos granted me the right to travel further and farther when I won an online photo contest with photographer-friend Stephanie Roberts. I was back on a plane, only this time, I knew what to expect. Whether I was in a makeshift kitchen in Rwanda or the mountain villages of Nepal, my subjects wanted their stories to be told, especially when I turned the camera around and showed them what was possible to see through the viewfinder. Little girls slid into their fathers' arms. Mothers tilted their newborn babies to the best available light. Old men who couldn't read or write gave me their whole histories in a glance. It was transformative.

Whether you're a professional photographer or a hobbyist eager to capture the essence of local life while on vacation, I know now that the key is one part human connection and one part filling the frame with someone who would like to be more fully seen. This is no small feat, but it's possible when we let go a little of getting what we want in the lens and make room for the heart and vision of someone else. Our willingness to go beyond our own agenda not only will improve the quality of our work, but it will deepen our experience of our art. And it's when we approach our work with a new measure of heart and soul—combined with our technical expertise—that our images truly shine.

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