Photographing Elders

30 Sep

DSC_2972bw I recently had the opportunity to photograph Dene elders in Behchoko, NWT – a  small, mostly aboriginal community about an hour west of Yellowknife. It was a  quick session with 4 elders. Many of them didn’t speak english, so the real challenge  was communicating through a translator. But even that wasn’t the real challenge.  How do you pull out a timeless expression from someone who is world’s different  from you in age, culture, race, and language? 


 Living in Yellowknife, I’ve come to be pretty familiar with photographing people who  aren’t used to the camera; in fact, around here, most people find the camera  somewhat uncomfortable, especially in a controlled shoot. I think the reason for this  is that we live in a remote spot and the people here are generally modest. Nobody acts  like a Hollywood A-Lister because to do so would admit that you’re an “outsider” (or  city-slicker) and then we’ll mock you to a certain extent. 


To be honest, photographing people who aren’t used to the camera can make you a better photographer. I mean, anyone can photograph an actor – they’re used to the camera so much that they’ll be twirling their hair, biting their lips and doing all kinds of modeling stunts before you even turn the camera on. 


So when I’m photographing people, like these elders, the way I approach the shoot is quite technical. I’ll use my hand and tell them to look at my hand, putting it over to the side or up in the air or down to the floor. Why? Because I’ve studied enough photos to know that people can change the mood of a photo just by tilting their head to a certain direction. 

In photo language this means that someone looking deadpan into the camera can mean “serious”. Someone looking up and away means “hopeful”.  Someone smiling into the camera means “welcoming”. Someone looking down and to the side means “longing”.

Is this trickery? I guess in a way it is. But to me, its no different than some fanciful artiste photographer saying “I want you to think about the saddest day in your life” just so the person has a distant look in their eyes. Sure, communication between a photog and the subject is crucial to getting a good photo, but when the person isn’t used to getting their photo taken the best route (for me anyway) is to understand that simply looking in certain directions can create a mood in the final picture.  


One Response to “Photographing Elders”

  1. Sam Toman October 2, 2009 at 1:14 pm #

    Great post PK. I remember the elders at the Behchoko independence day celebration as the coolest thing there. Not that they are things, but they just radiate a cool confidence. That is until someone cracks a joke and the old ladies all start giggling like school girls.

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