Assignment: Portraits With NO Communication

Background
OK. My last post was about how good verbal communication skills are important for success in commercial photography. It was a quick diatribe highlighting how communication is essential at every step of the way while making a good photograph. If you missed that post, go read it now. If you’ve already read it, then you know that communication is an important part of being a good photographer.

So that’s all good, but we’re past that. More importantly, that post sparked a great idea: my first ever homework assignment for the brave, willing readers of this blog. And, since I never had much love for homework, this assignment is really easy – so easy that you might even be able to pull it off in the next 5 minutes on this Monday morning.

The Assignment
As a contrast my last post, and as a slight change of direction, I propose now that you go make several portraits of someone but entirely avoid communicating with them before or during the session. Now don’t snap voyeur images with a long lens – that’s not the point. Get in front of someone and shoot lots of pictures of them without saying anything. Seriously.

I see two scenarios in which this will unfold:

1) If you’ve got your subject’s undivided attention and can actually set up a basic portrait session (even if it’s your girlfriend, boyfriend, wife, hubby, friend, kid), do so except don’t tell them in advance what you’re doing, and once you start shooting don’t communicate with them at all for the duration of the sitting. Just take pictures. And when it gets weird, keep shooting. Remember: don’t prep them in advance that you’ll not be talking with them during the shoot.

or

2) If you’ve NOT got a subject’s undivided attention (more likely the bulk of us), just find a friend or a co-worker, walk right up to them without speaking or gesturing, and begin taking lots of pictures of them. And don’t stop. Use your big pro camera, or your point and shoot, hell, it doesn’t even matter — even use your iphone or other camera/phone. The point is, just start taking lots of pictures – a mini portrait session if you will – unannounced, of someone you know. Paparazzi style. Keep it going for a good minute or three. Don’t get arrested or fired from your job or ruin someones day but just take pictures. [maybe you'll make someone's day??]. No talking, just pictures…

The Results
Now is when I beg for your personal stories in the comments. If this social/photographic experiment is to have any application, we need your feedback. Even if it’s just a sentence. What happened? What was your subject’s response? Did they play along and “get it” or were they miffed, curious, annoyed, pleased, freaked out? What were the circumstances under which you started the session? And important: keep a mental tab on: a)what it felt like while you were shooting AND; b) if you can, what you thought the subject was feeling deep under their skin.

And then we’ll compare notes.

Please do take place in this homework exercise! (Okay, now I realize that I’m getting too excited…). Just go take pictures without communicating and share your comments here. ALSO: if you have the gumption and permission these to post to your flickr or other photo-sharing account, put a link to those shots in your comment here and we’ll all go check ‘em out. Don’t be bashful (traffic?), post as many as you can stomach posting, focusing on ones that interest you. I think this will help us understand what’s really going on with how verbal communication affects the pictures we get… And if not, then we’ll at least get to look at some interesting (?) images as a part of some strange social experiment.

Oh, and lastly, when you’ve finally taken all the shots you need/want and officially driven home your point–whatever it ends up being–please let the subject in on what you’ve done and why. Tell him or her you just had some homework, and then go buy them a cup of nice coffee, or beer, or chocolate or something. Blame it on me. And consider sending them back here to read/see the results of the experiment in which they unknowingly participated ;)

[BTW, Reader BMillios really got me thinking on this via his comment on my earlier post - thanks B!!]

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37 Responses to Assignment: Portraits With NO Communication

  1. JM August 27, 2007 at 5:46 am #

    Actually did something remarkably similar to the assignment once. Was doing some work in Tanzania a few years ago when a group came through carting brand new dSLRs. Same organization, so I knew some of them and started up some impromptu camera classes (such as: how to change a lens).

    During a discussion with one of them on the point of a continuous shooting mode. Another member of their group started walking up and I gave what turned out to be a 234 frame demonstration.

    She (the subject) started out completely oblivious to the camera, then stopped to pose for a bit, then looked rather annoyed, came up to within hearing range of the conversation, found out it wasn’t about her but about cameras, looked annoyed for a few moments, started posing again, then came forward to pretend to put a hand up in front of the camera.

    Unfortunately it seems I have lost the originals and have only 40px thumbnails left. No stellar photos out of it, but a rather funny one of a face being made a foot from the camera with a completely solemn look in the photo before and after it.

  2. Adam August 27, 2007 at 11:57 am #

    It was a slow morning for me and a perfect time to have some fun…this was a great impetus. I harassed numerous people in my office, and it was interesting to see how people that I know pretty well reacted to this unusual situation. Some people were immediately uncomfortable, some hammed it up, one completely ignored me! I found it painful to see something in the situation that needed to be made better, but couldn’t communicate that and was sitting there just waiting for the thing to happen somehow naturally. It never happened, ever.
    Thanks for inspiring the fun,
    Adam
    No Communication Photo Set

  3. Chase Jarvis August 27, 2007 at 1:26 pm #

    Adam: BRILLIANT! Nice work and thanks for posting!! I especially like that your edit contains a mix of responses (and it sounds like you got mixed responses from each person as well…guy pointing and guy smiling….). If we were to average the people’s comfort level and expressions for the images you posted, (ie take out your perfect smiles on one end, and hands in front of the camera on the other), you’re left with sometimes intriguing, awkward-ish, not-sure-what’s-going-on, benign look, ala the woman on her wacom tablet completely ignoring you and the 3rd frame in where the gent is just staring at you.)

    Now here’s the kicker: thoses sometimes intriguing, awkward-ish, not-sure-what’s-going-on looks are ok/tolerable for the photographer- subject part of the “photography” equation, but how bout if you had a CLIENT that felt awkward and gave you that not-sure-what’s-going-on look, or worse yet, had that feeling inside…? What if this array of photos that Adam posted were your clients? A couple happy, a couple really NOT happy, and many indifferent. That would be quite BAD for business. We all know that rule that for every happy customer, they might tell one person, but for ever bad experience, customers will tell something like 7 others.

    So I’d argue results of test #1 are that sometimes you can get away with it on photo subjects part of the equation, but if the expressions on Adams photo subjects equated to the feelings of his clients (given the same lack of communication) that his business would not be going so well…

    Thanks again for sharing Adam.

    Who else is gonna post something? I wanna see a poperazzi shoot on a cell phone of someone really not expecitng it.

    Communication pervades, might as well make it good…

  4. Scott Dickerson August 27, 2007 at 2:06 pm #

    I’d like to try this, but I’m working alone in an empty house.
    Thinking about the idea is interesting though. It reminds me of the people I’ve photographed that required a lot of communication work to make them comfortable. Seems that a subjects personal space has a big impact on this. I have often photographed people who were fine with the 70-200mm lens, but they squirmed when I moved closer with a wide angle. Often I’ll try and ‘numb them’ by shooting a lot and talking at the same time so they start to sense that each picture really isn’t that important and if they look silly that’s fine, there will be a good one to choose out of all those shots.

    Maybe I’ll ambush the mailman.

    Thanks for a thought provoking distraction.

  5. dougplummer August 28, 2007 at 9:33 am #

    Chase,

    I know you’re hammering home a larger point here, which is the fundamental basis for connection prior to actually assaulting someone with a camera. I wrote an entry about your experiment on my blog: http://www.dougplummer.blogs.com.

  6. Chase Jarvis August 28, 2007 at 9:58 am #

    Doug: Yes a larger point is about the rapport you have with your subject(s), BUT the LARGEST point is that good communication skills are required front to back and side to side. From communicating with potential clients (marketing), to communicating in pre-production, production, and post-production with clients (production), to finally communicating with the subjects of your images, it’s all really about communication.

    Recognize.

  7. Chase Jarvis August 28, 2007 at 9:59 am #

    Scott: indeed, you should ambush the mailman. (but don’t sue me if he pepper sprays you ;)

  8. Gordon August 28, 2007 at 11:14 am #

    I now have a couple of very grumpy pictures of my wife to treasure and one of her back as she walked out of the room. I figured I’d learned/demonstrated the point well enough not to follow her any further :)

  9. Chris the Detroit Photographer August 28, 2007 at 11:39 am #

    Seems like most photojournalists work this way. Would that be correct?

  10. Chase Jarvis August 28, 2007 at 11:49 am #

    Gordon: Ok, we’re demonstrating the point. Subjects are sometimes ok with no communication, regularly indifferent, often grumpy.

    Again. Clients with no communication would likely yeild the same results.

    Additionally, on the marketing front… if you you have no communication with POTENTIAL clients, you’ll get no biz. If you have poor communication, you might get them–not unlike your wife–to simply walk out of the room.

    Thanks for sharing – hope your wife doens’t hate me (although you should definitely blame it on my so you don’t have to deal with the wrath…. ;)

  11. Chase Jarvis August 28, 2007 at 11:55 am #

    Chris/Doug: I’d argue that good PJ’s still communicate effectively. They just do it more subtley–sometimes just by pointing their camera…sometimes gently, other times more aggressively…they’re communicating); but they do often verbally communicate. And when they do, they keep it to the point (which is actually MORE refined communication… Okay so they don’t ‘direct’, but they still communicate with the subject. Don’t forget they also communicate with editors, right?

    They’re not immune.

  12. CBP August 28, 2007 at 12:13 pm #

    I think that more often than not, little or no direction makes for interesting results.

    Most of the work on my website ( cameronbrioux.com ) is a result of no communication. When I shoot I must prefer the human interaction and telling a story through the lens.. I dont think you can do this properly by telling someone exactly what to do infront of the camera, I also dont think you can really capture it afar, with a long lens.
    Perhaps I just stated the obvious?

    Cheers from Toronto
    Cameron

  13. Chad Coleman August 28, 2007 at 2:22 pm #

    As a photojournalist you almost have to work harder on communication, even if it is more subtle as Chase stated, since many subjects do not want to be photographed, but it is essential to have “art” to accompany a story. They are not always willing (or paid) models…

    Waaaay less (none in many cases) directing, but you still need to establish a rapport and line of communication with your subject.

    I’d like to second Chase’s point that for photographers communcation is essential, no matter your genre, PJ, advertising, stock, etc. And he no doubt has hit the nail on the head of communicating with editors, layout deisgners, reporters and more to get it right.

  14. Adam August 28, 2007 at 2:41 pm #

    I felt there were a few things to learn in simply doing this experiment without thinking too much about it until after. Yes there is that philosophy about observer vs. participant, and defining for yourself exactly what is communication, what is art and what is your style, etc. These are all things we’ve spent at least a little bit of time thinking about, and are interesting in there own right, of course. What I found fresh was this totally new situation, where you are going to take out the communication factor in a situation that generally requires communication. I learned something about myself in the process. That is I tend to say too much. In forcing myself to say and communicate nothing, it tended to destill my thoughts over the 2 minute session and the few really good ones stood out, the bad ones went away and I watched my subject more intently. After doing this I used my new found Kung-Fu on my unsuspecting children’s portrait last night. I said less, watched closer, communicated the right things and everything was one notch better than the last kids session. Besides, that experiment has been the talk of the office lately, it was just plain fun. I am not the extrovert type, this was nerve-racking at the start, but I have to say I was quite comfortable making people squirm by the end. I would not have expected that from myself.
    Chase, have you done this assignment yourself?

  15. Chase Jarvis August 29, 2007 at 9:30 am #

    Cbp: Thanks for sharing your site… Good work. I’ll buy that certainly ‘interseting’ results can come from not communicating, but not from professional commercial photography, which is highly directed, and remember that client interactions which are “interesting” aren’t good. Clients (commercial) and editors (editorial) spending money on hiring you to shoot want to communicate with you. So again, this a place where no communication sometimes works with subjects, but certainly is not the rule. I’d also suggest that in creating your images that you actually communicated a lot with your subjects. For example, the shot of the girl with the shaving cream. Did you just stumble across that? Or the guy standing with the guitar…just find him in an alley? Hockey guy, just standing in his room with a bunch of sticks? The bikini girl was just standing in her bikini along a brick wall?

    So you get my point. I conceed that you might not have coaxed certain expressions from the model, but I’m talking about the big picture. There certainly seem to be a lot of set up here where you had to communicate. This really emphasizes my point. For those of us (especially PJ’s who are focused on ‘ethical documentation’) who think we don’t communicate much, we really do communicate in a lot of ways in order to make a good image.

  16. dominic August 29, 2007 at 9:35 am #

    Here’s my contribution to this assignment. Apparently I have some coworkers who really don’t want their picture taken.

  17. brian faini August 29, 2007 at 11:00 pm #

    I have always liked Irving Penn’s approach. He would have the person to be photographed over to his study and have them sit. He would then putter around his studio and play with lights and such for an extended time until the model gave in. He wouldnt communicate with them. The model would put off their prior emotions and willingness to be photographed rendering a different perspective.

    I guess I explained that well.

    Brian Faini
    http://www.brianfaini.com

  18. Paul Playford August 30, 2007 at 4:51 am #

    Hi Chase,

    It is a quite morning in our studio in Ireland, tried the homework on my assistant who is also my wife,she was sittng in front of the street window, as soon as I started shooting she started posing, at the end I asked her why she started posing and the answer ” Thought that I was just trying to attract attention to the studio” and from my point of view I wondered why she did not ask why I just started taking Photos.

    Not sure what this means if anything.

    Paul

  19. Chase Jarvis August 30, 2007 at 5:33 am #

    Dominic’s photo examples are brilliant.

    Poor communication can often get you in that squeeze, metaphorically or otherwise ;)

  20. Chase Jarvis August 30, 2007 at 5:35 am #

    Paul: it certainly does mean something – it means that even pointing your camera at someone is a form of communicating (ala my earlier comment about PJ’s)… Your wife had expectations when you pointed that camera at her that she should perform somehow… It’s only a micro point to our big picture here, but it’s still very crucial to recognize what your little experiment has shown. Thanks so much for sharing!

  21. felix August 31, 2007 at 6:25 am #

    Hi Chase
    I took part in your assignment. I shot 19 frames of my sister with a external flash while the was watching tv. I used a 35mm prime lens and there for I was pretty close to her. You can visit them in my photostream. First she ignored me, then she started laughing and look in my direction. She asked a question which I didn’t answer. Then she continued watching tv. On the last shot she looks into the directon of a friend of us which entered the room (we were at this friend’s house). I explained the experiment to them but I think the were more interessted in the World Championships in Athletics. Thanks for this assingment and the time to answer all comments.

    felix

  22. Chase Jarvis August 31, 2007 at 11:59 am #

    Felix: Great shots (stunning really – love the simplicity) and thanks for participating.

    Your experience seems to right in the pattern with regard to photo subjects. First nothing, then reacting to the camera, then back to nothing.

    All these sessions would clearly benefit from communication.

  23. felix September 1, 2007 at 10:20 am #

    thanks Chase for your feedback. This reaction is typical for my sister as she is use to my camera and photographing. I’ll bet with a stranger I would get very different reactions. I think total strangers will react more negative to a photographer without communication skills. Thanks for the assignment!

  24. matt wardle September 3, 2007 at 2:28 pm #

    Hi Chase,
    Myself and 8 other uk photographers just shot 800 people in one day, all in liverpool. Thats 100 different people each, interestingly enough when i shot any friends and family and didnt really communicate,i got some really nice shots, the ones with strangers where the banter came in seem a bit more… unnatural?
    just to let you know all the pics go live on the 10th sept http://www.popcultured.co.uk, have a luck and let us know what you think.

    Matt – liverpool UK

  25. Jacob September 5, 2007 at 2:12 pm #

    First off, I need to subscribe the the RSS feed so I’m not a week late on seeing this stuff.

    I really like the idea behind this. When I started shooting photography of people rather than things, I’d use my wife as a guinea pig for light tests. One of her first comments was to talk to her, make her feel comfortable, etc.

    I feel I’ve gotten much better at interacting with the model from behind the camera, which adds an extra element of personality to the image.

    So for this assignment, I sat the wife down to do some tests. The resutls are here:

    http://www.flickr.com/gp/7270289@N02/1e666k

    She started out excited to shoot, but as I continued not to say anything, she got bored. Then she was asking questions and I was ignoring her, hence the tongue sticking out, and the goofy smile at the end – at this point, she was just trying to get a response from ME.

    As others have said, I think this experiment would be different with a stranger as well.

    I also added a few more shots to that set of my wife and a friend to show the difference communication makes – I was joking and talking with them through the entire process. I love capturing natural laughter and smiles that aren’t forced – I feel it really makes the image.

  26. Gordon September 10, 2007 at 12:04 pm #

    I happened to have another observation on this one, based on some experiences at the weekend. I was doing some street portraiture with strangers. This was up close and personal, tight headshots and group shots with an 85mm lens, not candid at all. They were very aware that I was there and I didn’t say a word.

    Every single picture has _huge_ smiles in it. Beaming, happy, comfortable people and I never spoke, verbally. I’d walk up, give a big smile, gesture and take the picture.

    Body language, mime, non-verbal communication can be huge, even more so than verbal. This was a crazy, crazy experience & lesson to learn for me.

    The point ? Sometimes it isn’t what you say but how you say it that really communicates.

  27. Gordon September 10, 2007 at 12:07 pm #

    sorry for the run on comment.

    On the flip side, I also tried putting my camera in high speed/ low JPEG mode, so that I could shoot for a while and pointed the lens at someone who I knew, over lunch and didn’t say anything, just started firing away at 8.5fps until the card filled up.

    4000 frames later I have some interesting videos…

  28. Chase Jarvis September 18, 2007 at 8:07 pm #

    Gordon: Man that is awesome. Well said – it’s not entirely what you say, but often how you say it. I wish I could add that to my original post!

  29. Chase Jarvis September 18, 2007 at 8:28 pm #

    Matt (UK): freaking awesome man. what a cool project. I clicked thru hundreds of images. Fun and inspiring.

  30. Chase Jarvis September 18, 2007 at 8:30 pm #

    Jacob: couldn’t find your photos for this assignment – what am I doing wrong?

  31. 7dot September 28, 2007 at 10:58 am #

    http://flickr.com/photos/7dot/1031343865/

    …it worked because she was proud of what she just did.
    problem:

    i only got that second until she walked away – and I didn’t get the focus right on the eyes…

  32. Chase Jarvis October 4, 2007 at 6:16 am #

    7Dot: Great shot. I don’t mind the softness. If it bugs you, have you tried to hammer the selective sharpening on the parts you want sharp?

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