The last couple of weeks, I’ve posted some photos of Misha Collins I was lucky enough to take in Vancouver this past August. I’ve been overwhelmed with how kind everyone has been about them, especially when people say things like “I feel like I’m actually seeing Misha for the first time.”
To me, that’s astonishing. Honestly, he was always one of the hardest people for me to photograph. I never felt like I was quite capturing him, not in the same way as other people. I felt like I missed the mark more often than not. But it’s consistently been a comment since I put out the portraits I took in Vancouver, and I’ve been wondering why.
Portraiture is this weirdly intimate thing. What you’re essentially doing is you’re asking someone to open up to you. Unless it’s a brief where you are creating a character (like a themed photoshoot, like a cosplay shoot) you are asking someone to bare who they are to you. This is over and above any qualms a person may have about having their photo taken anyway. Anyone who doesn’t like having their photo taken knows what a horrifying thing it can be – staring at an impersonal lens staring back at you. Are you smiling too much? Not enough? Should you be smiling at all? Are you standing in an unflattering way? Do you have something in your teeth?
Actors are used to having their photo taken, it’s part of their job. But it’s not necessarily a pleasant part of their job – a lot of them don’t like it either. So for this amazing cast to agree to sit for me, someone with next to no experience and so adding a layer of awkwardness on top of all the other awkwardness, is a huge deal.
I’m not an outgoing person; I’m quite shy and so to have to direct these people that I admire so deeply felt wrong. They were taking a huge risk on me and I had to try to prove that it was worth it, to give up their time and do something that is so oddly personal.
But the interesting thing is that I think it works to my advantage. There’s a push-pull with any photographer / subject that becomes evident in the photograph. For me to bring this almost raw beginner quality to shooting almost makes it okay for them to in some ways take control, but in other ways also open up. I must seem like sort of a safe space. I don’t know if what I was capturing was the “real” Misha, or the “real” Matt, because we don’t know who they are. Their job and their ability to have a proper work / life balance means it’s almost necessary for them to have some form of guard around them, to protect some part of themselves and shield it from people.
But I think what I was capturing was perhaps what I feel about them, and then that is what resonates with people. Because when I’m taking portraits, I’m not only trying to pull some response from the subject, but also from the person who’s going to look at the photo. I’ve talked about it before, but when we look at a portrait of someone we are all going to be looking at it through a framework that is very particular to ourselves. If you care about someone, you’re going to look at a photo of them and see the qualities evident in it that makes that person appealing to you.
That’s a powerful act of recognition and connection that occurs on an almost unconscious level that we don’t quite understand. I somehow know this person, because I know absolutely how I feel about this person.
So the most mind-blowing comment for me is someone saying that they see a photo I’ve taken and really see the person in it, because over and above whatever I’ve captured, I’ve somehow brought out that feeling of recognition in the person looking at the photo, and that feels like such a huge achievement.
I don’t know if this is something that gets better over time, or if it is even something that can be worked on. Maybe I’m just lucky, and it’s because of how strongly I feel about these people in particular. But I’m lucky that I am able to have the opportunity to try something like this with the people I care about.