The Secret to Portrait Photography? Talking!

There is a trend within academic teaching of photography to focus on the relationship of the ‘Self and Other’. The course I lead has a module with that exact title, as do many other courses, workshops and programmes. The idea of the self and the other within photography is a ‘hot topic’, as the representation of people through photography has a complex and chequered history that has become even more relevant over the past few years. Issues concerning colonial legacy, othering, privilege and power, have rightly come to the fore and no more so than in the creation of the photographic portrait.

The wider contexts (social, philosophical, cultural, political, ethical and economic) relate directly to contemporary photography and the representation of cultures and identity are as intrinsic to the understanding of contemporary portraiture as knowing where to place a light, or which lens to use. The photographic portrait is a collaboration and it is a collaboration based on communication.

This may seem obvious to some reading this and heretical to others so please let me explain.

If you use the word ‘subject’ to describe the person you are photographing you have already missed the point in my opinion. You are instantly placing them into the position of othering, a pattern of exclusion and marginalisation. The use of the word ‘other’ could also therefore prove problematic when referring to portrait photography. The conditions that produce otherness are often a reflection of society-wide preconceptions about who belongs in certain fields, roles, and levels of success. It is not the role of the portrait photographer to further entrench these beliefs based upon societal tropes or adopt the role of ‘master’ of the situation.

These semantic observations may seem academic, but please stay with me on this. I believe that one way to address issues of otherness is to engage in mutually respectful conversation and to reach points of understanding. I would argue that this is also the basis of successful portrait photography.

I have long stated that a successful portrait is proof of a successful conversation. When I began working as a portrait photographer my choice of camera was a Hasselblad as it allowed me to make eye contact with the person I was photographing as I was making the images of them, whilst continuing our conversation. I would still argue that some of my most successful portraits where made with that camera for that reason. The move to digital saw me having to place a Canon wall between myself and the person I am photographing.

This has made the conversation more difficult but not impossible. I talk throughout any and every photographic collaboration.

I am not talking about sycophantic conversation or small talk, but engaged and appropriate conversation. A successful portrait should be a visual and oral search for a connection that achieves more than being a document of what someone was wearing at a specific point in time, where they were or what you can do with a light or lens. This conversation begins before you meet the person.

Research is essential in demonstrating an interest in the person you are photographing. An obvious demonstration that you want to know more, that you care about the individual and not just the photograph. I read about the person, their family, what they are interested in and around the subjects they are involved in or affected by. If they have been photographed before I research those images and the photographers who created them. I consider the context for these images, how they were made, why they were made and how they were used.

I always say that when I first meet someone that I am about to photograph I have to shake their hand, look them in the eye and hope that they will begin to trust me. That trust will be the starting point for the conversation and the portrait. I cannot expect it to be given, it has to be hard won.

The process of meeting, and speaking should evolve into the portrait. Any stress or concern I may have prior to the meeting cannot be bought to the situation and any person I am photographing may have has to be calmed and resolved by me. The conversation will always last much longer than the actual process of making the photographs. Maybe an hour of conversation, and ten to fifteen minutes of photography. Rarely does the photography take longer than that and it should not.

To do so would be to lose the sense of collaboration and transform the person being photographed into a manipulated subject. The photographer becoming the master of the situation.

Now of course the photographer must set the agenda, create the atmosphere, and exude a confidence and professionalism appropriate to the situation, but the person being photographed is not an inanimate object to be positioned, manipulated and directed without consideration and respect. Talking breaks the ice, relaxes your collaborator and allows them to enjoy the experience. The process of creating the image should be painless for the person being photographed, it should place no expectation on them to perform to the expectation of the photographer.

When at the end of a photographic session the person asks “Is that it?” and follows up this question with a “That was quick” I know that things have gone well. The hard work has been on me, the expectation has been on me and I will have met that expectation.

The relationship between the person being photographed is initially one of the self and other but it must rapidly evolve into a collaborative process. It is the role of the portrait photographer to ensure that process begins and maintains as part of their photographic approach.

Dr. Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, documentary filmmaker, BBC Radio contributor and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Routledge 2014), The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Routledge 2015), New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography (Routledge 2019).

Grant’s book What Does Photography Mean to You? including 89 photographers who have contributed to the A Photographic Life podcast is on sale now £9.99

© Grant Scott 2021


  1. This is a very interesting article but I don’t really agree with much of it.

    This modus operandi may well suit you, your style, the people that commission you and the kind of your people you are photographing.

    But it won’t suit everyone.

    The title of the article, with the exclamation mark, seems very unequivocal. I hope you would agree that there are other ways of approaching portraiture?

  2. Your observation in a previous podcast about the gesture in the great images by Bailey, Penn clarified something I have myself being grappling with, uncomfortable as I am with the straight contemporary flavours for figures standing centre, straight on to camera with their arms at their sides. This and the almost lost craft of environmental portraiture.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: