"The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera." - Dorothea Lange

Thursday, January 07, 2010

studio portraits at the orphanage

Crazy American that I am, I set up a temporary portrait studio at St. Mary Kevin’s.

It wasn’t an easy task. The backdrop didn’t appear out of thin air. Michael (SMK’s volunteer art teacher) and I have been communicating about its shape, size, color and material for a couple of months. Once we agreed on what the thing should look like, Michael set about making it for me. He was still painting the canvas when I arrived, so I got to “direct” as he put on the finishing touches. It looked even better than I imagined it might.

Finding a place to hang it was a challenge. I wanted to hang it from a tree and incorporate the lush hills of Kajjansi around the edges of the formal portrait. I spent most of an entire day scouring the grounds and even nearby properties for the right tree. The problem was, there was not one wide swatch of open shade that could accommodate the backdrop, the subject and me.

I settled on an open-air pen that consisted of four brick walls, one of which had a space for entry. Some of the older boys helped (with an inspired combination of rope pulleys and heavy stones) get the backdrop mounted on one of the walls, assuring me that as the sun moved, the space would soon be in shade. Turns out, the sun kept creeping in, and a couple of hours later the harsh Ugandan sun was splattered all across the backdrop. Arg.

My studio eventually became a dirt floor room in the back of the brick-making building. It was a tiny space, so I had to let go of the idea of incorporating elements around the backdrop. There wasn’t even enough room to step back more than a few feet from the subject. The nice thing was, there was a window (hole) in the back wall, which served as my light source. That part was pretty sweet.

Various children came to my studio. They loved being there – found it quite unusual, I guess. It gave them time to quietly and honestly express themselves, away from the hubbub of all the other kids and the constant buzz of activity. It was nice for me, as well, because I got to spend time one on one with many of the children, an activity that is often interrupted as everyone is vying for my attention.

The cool part was that the children showed a real interest in learning about light, framing, the way the camera worked, etc. The makeshift studio turned into a “school” of sorts.



I let the children chose the way they wanted to present themselves. If they had no ideas, I, who am usually in “hyper-observe” mode, suggested they recreate a particular way I had seen them standing or gesturing earlier.

These are a couple of the results. More to follow.


Stacie Pottinger said...

The image of Godfrey is absolutely stunning. I was catching up on the past two entries (starting with Tony) and thought to myself' "she did not drag a studio strobe all the way to Uganda??" So was so surprised and thrilled to read about the window spot light. How nice things can work out sometimes! Did you get a shot of the entire set up from further back?

Gloria Baker Feinstein said...

Thanks, Stacie!

I was in such tight quarters that I really couldn't pull back far enough to photograph the whole set-up, primitive as it was. I do have a photo of Michael painting the backdrop and also of the window where the light came in. I'll try to dig them up and include them in the next post.