I’ve been using people in my photographs for about 5 years, both for straight forward portrait shots and my creative images. I live in a tiny hamlet in the middle of nowhere and don’t have access to professional models, so in the early days I cajoled friends and family to sit for me. I felt really uncomfortable and didn’t know the etiquette of what I could, and couldn’t, ask them to do but as time has gone on I’ve become more confident although I still balk at the thought of photographing strangers not least because the vast majority of my pictures are taken in the spare bedroom at home!
As word spread around the rural area where I live, I’d bump into people who enthusiastically offered their children to sit for me (though strangely never themselves 😄). However, when the time came for me to take them up on the offer 75% of people back out. It’s one thing to want a nice smiley studio photograph of your kids, particularly if it’s free, and quite another to know it’s going to be part of some weird creative picture and available online for the world to see.
Luckily, a couple of my neighbours and their children have happily posed for me over the years for which I am hugely grateful. As a “thank you” I always give them a framed print of the final image and copies of any magazines or catalogues that the picture ends up in. I also ask them to sign a model release form. If the resulting photographs are to be available for sale this is a legal requirement, but even if they are only used in competitions and I don’t legally need a model release I ask for one anyway. I want my subjects to be comfortable with my use of their image and to have full knowledge of where I intend to publish the picture. Having explained everything, if they are unhappy with some aspect of the shoot I wouldn’t use the photograph (which doesn’t mean to say they always like the image I end up creating, in which case I’d still use it!). It’s important to remember that people are, on the whole, polite and don’t want to tell you they aren’t happy with something you’re doing, so you have to become adept at reading between the lines and regularly checking in that everything is OK.
This need for my subjects to be comfortable with my use of their image is the reason I don’t do street photography. The thought of someone surreptitiously taking my picture and putting it online without my knowledge or consent is horrifying to me and would feel like a huge invasion of my privacy. Despite that, I recognize that street photography is incredibly important, particularly in recording historic events but also in simply capturing contemporary life, but I’ll leave it to others to do as it’s an aspect of photography I personally struggle with.
My lack of availability of models is what led me to start taking self portraits. You have to work with what you have, and at 7pm on a Sunday night in my tiny rural hamlet all I had was me! I sent off for some wigs and second hand dresses off Ebay and it’s amazing how much you can alter your features in Photoshop (get rid of wrinkles, change eye colour, change face shape) so that it doesn’t even look like you. The biggest advantage of doing selfies is that I am willing to do things for my pictures (get hypothermia or dislocate a thumb for example 😂) that I wouldn’t ask someone else to do in a million years. My postman has long since stopped being surprised when I open the door to receive my mail dressed in a ballgown and long blonde wig and has, instead, gotten in on the act by offering me the use of his fog and bubble machines 😆. Of course, during the various lockdowns and restrictions of the past year being a self portrait photographer has been a huge blessing. I haven’t been in a room with another person (apart from my parents whom I care for) for eleven months and there are only so many pictures I can take of my dog before he bites me 😁.
The reaction to my self portrait images is fascinating. Some people, not knowing the reasons why I photograph myself, think they are purely narcissistic. Others don’t even know my selfies are selfies as I often knock 30 years off my age with editing! I was recently featured in Cumbria Life magazine and being as though all of my recent pictures only contain one person the writer concluded that they were deliberately depicting isolation and solitude, whereas in actuality they were all taken during lockdown when we haven’t been allowed to mingle with anyone outside our household.
People photography isn’t for everyone, but for me it’s an important way of being able to tell stories. One of the great advantages of composite photography is the ability to create an image which doesn’t exist in ‘real life’, so to be able to combine my love of wildlife with my human subjects in ways which would be impossible in the natural world is magical. Having said all that, I’m still quite shy at asking people if they will sit for me and am more comfortable using myself in my images for my creative shots, particularly if the subject matter is contentious.
My biggest problem is that I’m 53 and we see hardly any middle aged women in photography, particularly fine art photography. It’s a genre dominated by young, unnaturally flawless girls and the only time our culture sees middle aged women as beautiful is when they’ve had botox, fillers and/or surgery to iron out life’s wrinkles 😕. So for now I’m playing the game and knocking 30 years off my age plus fixing my wonky eyebrow with editing software, all the while berating myself for not standing up for my beliefs that women are beautiful just as we are, even if it means I’d never win another competition. Maybe one day I’ll be brave.