I have had two relationships in my life with people I couldn’t communicate with through language. One was a Spanish builder and the other was a French photographer. These were not sexual or romantic relationships, but they were deep connections that have lasted as friendships over many years.
Communication has taken place through gestures with our eyes. A look, a raise of the eyebrows, a wink, an averted gaze, an extended look. These are the grammar and syntax of our eye language. They are tells that relate an inner thought, belief, opinion or concern that allows us to communicate without spoken language. The photographer needs to understand this and refine their sensitivity to these tells to understand the complex relationship between the image maker and the sitter.
I often talk about the importance of creating a sense of collaboration when creating a photographic portrait, to not see the person being photographed as a subject. They are not there to be manipulated and directed purely to fulfill the photographer’s photographic intention. The finished outcome should be a meeting of minds. The photographer can suggest an approach, but they should never bully the person they are photographing into agreement.
For me a successful portrait often comes from a good conversation, but that conversation must stop as the photographs are being made. It is at this point that the eyes become the principal method of communication.
I often speak of this phase as a period of intimacy. In some circumstances this intimacy can feel like a flirtation as a connection is made at a level deeper than light conversation can create. This is not a sexual flirtation, but an intellectual/emotional one that can be uncomfortable for both the photographer and sitter. As always balance is important to avoid inappropriate intensity. In many cultures, it is respectful not to look the dominant person in the eye. In traditional Islamic theology, it is generally advised to lower one’s gaze when looking at other people. Japanese children are taught in school to direct their gaze at the region of their teacher’s Adam’s apple. As adults, Japanese people lower their eyes when speaking to a superior as a gesture of respect. Excessive eye contact or “staring” is also sometimes described as impolite, inappropriate, or even disrespectful, especially between youths and elders or children and their parents, and therefore lowering one’s gaze when talking with older people is seen as a sign of respect and reverence. Cultural and societal practices concerning eye contact vary greatly. These are challenges for the photographer working across different cultural sensitivities, but they also show the importance of eye communication.
The portrait photographer focuses on the eye through the camera lens, staring, whilst addressing aperture, shutter speed, light and point of focus, utilising technical considerations, but it is the non-technical relationship with the eye that the photographer also needs to consider.
I remember an American photographer telling me how when he photographed the actor Jack Nicolson, after two frames, he knew that Jack was finished. His eyes told the story and the session finished with just those two frames. The photographer’s sensitivity to this ensured a successful conclusion and he has since gone on to be one of the most successful Hollywood celebrity photographers in Los Angeles today.
We are all aware of the old proverb that, “The eyes are the window to the soul”, it is one that has some truth to it. Shakespeare must have thought so and extended its meaning, “The eyes are the window to your soul, or was it just an illusion, his version of what was, is or could be, conception of a thought brought into reality”. It is also has a root in the Roman Empire, where the philosopher, Cicero, said, “The face is a picture of the mind as the eyes are its interpreter.” It is this interpretation that I feel has the most relevance to the portrait photographer.
The idea of the eyes as interpreter’s of the mind resonates with me. If we extend the metaphor to seeing the camera as an extension of the eye then this becomes even more relevant to the portrait photographer. I often speak of the importance of learning to ‘see’, rather than ‘look’ when learning photography, but the next stage in this learning is the recognition of the importance of eye contact in the photographic portrait process and the subsequent mastering of sophisticated eye communication. It is that learning that allows a portrait to be more than how someone looks and instead who they are and how they feel.
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). His film Do Not Bend: The Photographic Life of Bill Jay was first screened in 2018 www.donotbendfilm.com. He is the presenter of the A Photographic Life and In Search of Bill Jay podcasts.
© Grant Scott 2022