Dialogical photography

April 7, 2009 by Howard Zehr

Lately I have been tutoring some of my photography students in portrait photography. Since these are one-on-one sessions, we take turns sitting for one another as we experiment with lighting, angles and poses. My portraits on the masthead of this blog and on the CJP restorative justice page were made by Pushpika Weerakoon in one of these sessions.

This experience of being a subject is something all photographers should subject themselves to from time to time. We need to be reminded what it is like to be on the other side of the lens and, more generally, of the mutual relationships that photography entails.

Roswell Angier, in his book Train Your Gaze, observes that what makes a portrait come alive and feel authentic is the photographer’s “thoughtful regard” – the “felt activity of someone looking.” But the regard goes both ways. It is a consensual process: “the contract between subject and photographer hangs palpably in the air that separates them.” A conscious, mutual regard is reflected in the photograph.

The mutual regard underlying such a portrait involves a relationship of trust and vulnerability, if only briefly. Power relationships are also involved. As Angier notes, the photo records this exchange.

This exchange of trust and vulnerability in turn implies an obligation on the part of the photographer. That is why it is so important for photographers to also experience the lens side of the camera: to be reminded of the gift with which we are entrusted when making a portrait and the responsibilities that accompany this trust.

A quality of trust and mutuality is not inherent in all portraiture, of course. Richard Avedon’s large-scale portraits in his book and exhibit, In The American West, are incredibly detailed, showing minute surface effects – he used a large format wood-and-leather camera with film that measured 8×10” – and they are powerful. When I saw the exhibit, I left the hall several times, only to be drawn back to viewing them again.

But there is something disturbing about them. It is as if there is a veil between subject and viewer. Vulnerability is apparent, yes, but are the portraits truly consensual? Do the subjects realize how they are being portrayed? Is informed consent at work here? Do the photographs reveal something genuinely truthful about the subject? Many of the subjects seem wary, holding back. Indeed, various commentators have pointed out that these portraits seem aggressive, disrespectful, more about the photographer and his opinions than about the subject. Vicki Goldberg, in Light Matters: Writings on Photography, concludes that “…Avedon’s portraits seemed like definite proof that photographers, that photography itself, was not to be trusted – already a widely held suspicion.”

In my view Avedon’s portraits represent a somewhat exaggerated example of the common approach to photography as “shooting” or “taking.” As I have noted in The Little Book of Contemplative Photography, I prefer to approach photography as an act of receiving rather than taking.Such a photograph is more like a gift than a trophy. The experience of such photography is more like meditation or dialog than a conquest.

Whether landscape or person, photography conceived in this way is a collaborative effort, an exchange, between subject and photographer, and requires a profound respect for the subject. As photographer John Running says in his book, Pictures for Solomon, “Making a photograph is usually a collaboration between the photographer and the subject. It doesn’t matter if the subject is a landscape, a still life, an animal or a person.” As a result, he says, he tries to photograph “with care, respect, truth and wonder.”

This approach to photography, which we might think of as a dialogical approach, to me represents a “restorative” way of knowing and being.That is, it reflects core values of restorative justice such as respect, responsibility and relationship. It is consistent with my understanding of the overall mission of restorative justice: to strengthen the web of human relationships.