Who is the portrait really of?

by kempspace

This was an interesting experiment for the photographers involved. The video shows how different contextual information about the person to be photographed may prime each photographer to produce quite different representations of the same person. Of course we know little of the usual style of each photographer and could expect differences between them, but it’s the photographer’s own reflections that are interesting. They respond to the direction to get to the ‘essence’ of the person, then seek to understand the person in the context of his (given) background to create the portrait. How they represented the person seemed unsteadying to them and revealing about how we work with information we are primed with.

As a psychologist in photography I want to think about how the knowledge I bring makes me see this. In cognitive terms, our perceptions and assumptions colour how we interpret information about others and the world outside of us. In psychoanalytic terms, our reading of the intentions and actions of others can often be skewed by our own unconscious projections. It becomes important to know that we interpret the outside world through our own internal world, without knowing this, we deny ourselves the hope of changing how we could see things differently when life gets difficult (by changing the bias behind our interpretations). How is this relevant in portrait photography? Who are we really seeing through our lens? Who is the portrait really of?

I believe that what we ‘see’ down the lens, and the image we create, is a blend of ourselves and the other. In a similar way, the therapeutic relationship and work is created of two minds in concert, that of the psychologist and the client. Whatever is created, whether a relationship or a portrait, is a meeting of the internal worlds of both involved. In the case of the photography experiment, much of the internal world of the person to be portrayed may have been assumed by the photographer due to the context given. How this influenced the image may have shown more about the associated concepts in the photographer’s mind than the ‘essence’ of the sitter.

I’ve learned that what moderates the extent to which we recognise the individuality or ‘essence’ of the other, is the extent to which we know ourselves. The more we know ourselves, the more we are able to partial out our ‘essence’ or associations and more clearly ‘see’ or portray the other’s. I wonder if these photographers felt quite exposed, but hopefully only insomuch as understanding that these processes are normal to us all.