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

Friday, October 05, 2012

petra and the truth about photography

I inadvertently omitted this portrait in yesterday's post. This is an image that keeps appearing in my mind even when I'm not near it, so I didn't mean to leave it out.

This is a picture of everyone's beloved Petra (or "Princess Petra" to those who know her well). I love this child; she's feisty, smart, elegant, giggly, confident, mischievous, artistic, kind and affectionate. She's the younger sister of Nicky and Issy (two very accomplished high school students who are sponsored by Change the Truth) and the daughter of two obviously gifted parents who were killed during the war in northern Uganda. She has become an integral part of Melissa's home and family life. Any member of a CTT team can tell you she has a genuinely captivating and charming way of pulling you in to her fan club. Everyone simply falls in love with Petra.

When I showed this portrait to Melissa and Bobbie, both said, "It doesn't even look like her."

As someone who calls herself a portrait photographer, this comment always gets me going. On the one hand, I would like for the portrait to resemble the subject, but on the other, I am constantly searching for ways to go beyond what's on the surface. The latter is actually far more important to me when working on this particular project in Uganda. I believe it's easy to go to orphanages in Africa and make pictures of cute kids hamming it up for the camera or dirty or ragged kids waving flies off their faces. The challenge, at least for me, is to find a place on some deeper level that conveys (or at least points toward) the trembling despair, the pride and the sense of hope (and joy) that all hang in the air together.

Bobbie and Melissa (and everyone else) are used to seeing Petra with her impish, adorable smile. Petra is usually laughing or dancing or skipping or beaming.

The truth about photography is that it is not a truth. Three dimensions are converted to two. Things like size, color saturation, lightness/darkness and contrast change to something new (somewhat or greatly, depending on the decisions made by the photographer). Even without Photoshop, a "true" representation of a subject or a scene is ultimately just that: a representation. Line up ten photographers in front of the same subject, and you'll get ten different interpretations. Not only do the camera, the lens and the post production process bring changes to the game, just think about all the different experiences and baggage each photographer brings along. None of us has exactly the same point of view about anything; therefore, our choices regarding composition, depth of field, framing, timing, color versus black/white, etc. are all personal decisions that reflect our own unique view of the subject (or life itself!)

I didn't alter this portrait in Photoshop. I fixed a couple dust spots (my sensor gets crazy dirty in Africa), opened up the shadows and darkened the edges a bit. I made several other captures of Petra during this sitting, and some admittedly look "more like her", but this is the one I have chosen to share. The mystery of it appeals to me. There are many opportunities to fill in the lines, the gaps. It's up to the viewers now to add their own choices, their own experiences, their own answers and their own baggage when it comes to reacting to and interpreting my heartfelt, respectful and honest attempt at a non-truth.


smm said...

When I looked at the portrait of Petra I could see the woman she may become. She looks older than her years. Maybe it is the out of focus image blurring her features. Interesting.

Phil Gayter said...

I think it's a stunning picture, the soft focus of the subject's face is enhanced by the crispness of the shirt. It gives the girl a distance and loneliness that adds to the drama. Awesome Gloria.

Anonymous said...

Great shot of Petra. No, it is not how I remember her, but it captures her beauty in a different light. Petra is indeed loved. - Maya

Paul Matzner said...

This image, like all of your work, creates a mood or a feeling. There is an emotional response to seeing it. Yes, it is a portrait, but deeper than what some people who know Petra may have expected.
Keep up your great work (both photography and the orphanage).


Gloria Baker Feinstein said...

Thanks so much to each of you for the input. - G.