One of the loveliest aspects about being portrait photographer for me is simply meeting new people. I sometimes wonder what motivates me more, the anticipation of meeting and making a connection with someone new, or the prospect of a new face to photograph and the challenge to produce a picture they are really delighted with.
I think in the end the two motivations go hand in hand and the buzz I get is when these two elements come together successfully in a session.
Because there is a focus and point to our meeting (to work together to create something) the conversation has none of that small talk element you often find when standing around aimlessly with strangers at a drinks party for example. The conversation provides a break from the photography and the photography provides a break from the conversation. And during the session these two things will often be happening simultaneously and seamlessly.
The greatest compliment I can receive from an individual portrait session (apart of course from my subject being happy with the results) is that they themselves relaxed and enjoyed it. If I can get these two things right: a relaxed subject who ends up surprising themselves by enjoying the experience, and images they love, I know I’ve done my job well.
Over the years I have met a huge variety of people from all kinds of experiences and backgrounds. And because my sessions are 90% conversing, I often get to know my clients quite quickly within that small window of their session. Sometimes their lives are fascinating indeed as I found a few weeks ago when I had a call from Stephen Jakobi OBE to photograph him for his forthcoming memoir, Freeing the Innocent.
Stephen, now retired, spent most of his career as a professional lawyer, but in 1992 he took himself out of his traditional lawyer’s comfort zone, when he became involved in the case of a young British woman, Karyn Smith, who was tried for drug smuggling without proper legal representation or redress and sentenced to 25 years in Thailand. Stephen founded Fair Trials International with this guiding vision: a world where everyone’s right to a fair trial is respected, whatever their nationality, wherever they are accused.
Stephen launched his campaign, won a pardon for Karyn Smith and since then his pioneering work and that of his charity has helped numerous other EU citizens imprisoned around the globe find representation and justice: with a great many high profile cases in the mix.
It had been quite some time since Stephen was professionally photographed – although he has been snapped at countless times by press and cameramen etc over the years. What he wanted in this portrait was an image that portrayed less of the lawyer and more of the more humanitarian, activist and campaigner, and champion of those who have no representation. So I was looking to capture a portrait that signalled his standing and reputation as a respected lawyer but that strongly denoted the warmth in Stephen as a person, his ability to connect and engage on a very human level with people from any background or predicament.
I spent a special couple of hours at Stephen’s home in Ham Street in the London Borough of Richmond. The first picture here is the one that Stephen chose for his book which pleases me hugely as I love it too. It’s actually a very simple, relaxed, engaged portrait but what gives it an edge and the right message for me is Stephen’s tie. Yes he is suited as any lawyer would be but the tie has tipped off at one angle which to me, coupled with the angle of his head, the expression and engagement Stephen has with the camera, gives the portrait exactly the feel we were hoping to achieve.
As I left our session, Stephen said something that will stay with me: “I don’t think I’ve ever had such a lovely time being photographed in my life.” He also thrust a copy of his manuscript into my hands that I have been engrossed in since. This is a very good man indeed who turned his own privilege and advantage in life to helping others in need: and has patently made a difference.
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