Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Portrait Project - Request for Advice

1. F-san

I am starting a new project based upon taking portraits of a particular population I have been researching for some time now. With that in mind I recently had an opportunity to practice taking portraits as sort of a pre-project exercise. Here I give you the results, some explanation of the setting and finally ask for advice for my project.

2. S-san

The Setting: I have been frequenting a certain izakaya for the last several years and have become well-known by the owner, staff and regular customers. Many of these people have become good friends. Often times I take photos and I have actually posted photos of this setting on VAOJ before. I am not sure how many of these people understand that I am a visual anthropologist, but they do understand I am a university professor and I have been accepted as a regular customer. This year the izakaya scheduled a special shinnenkai, or new year's party, offering participants food and all you drink for four hours for a mere 2000 yen.

3. A-san

The Ethics: When I made my reservation to attend I asked the owner if I could take photos and I was given permission to do so. Before and during the event I made it known to all that I was the official photographer. Everyone seemed happy to have their photographs taken. By the end of the event the owner was making sure I was getting photos of certain individuals. Only one person had an objection to being photographed and I honored her/his request. I also made sure that s/he did not appear in any public or posted photographs by accident. I am giving copies of photographs to the owner and making many of them available on my Flickr account to other customers and friends.

4. B-san

I include getting permission in such detail because of my interest in the ethics of photographing in the Japanese public and because of some recent blogs discussing photographing in public without prior permission and almost bragging about still shooting when asked not to. (I commented about this on one particular blog and warned about the strict/paranoid laws in Japan, but the author responded by deleting my comments.) I discuss ethics and legalities not to discourage students/people from taking photos in public but rather to encourage interaction. By simply asking permission one can start a dialogue and get more information about the context of the photo. Respecting the people one photographs is important as well.

5. K-san

Anyway, I found myself in a very advantageous setting where people were allowing me to get in their face and take photos of them. Here are my results. I beg feedback and advice from VAOJ readers about theses portraits.

6. O-san

The Questions: In particular I am interested in the following two questions:

1) What information would you like to have included with an individual's portrait? (For example, age, occupation, education, hobbies, etc.)

2) What information would you like to have included that would put these portraits in a Japanese context? I see this project as ethnographic in nature, so how can I make sure my audience(s) understand I am describing Japanese culture(s)?

7. U-san

Advice on photographic technique is also solicited. Most of these portraits were close-up shots with very little cropping done after the photo was taken. I tweeked exposure and contrast a bit when needed (usually to compensate for poor lighting).

8. M-san

Stylistically I choose to present the portraits in black and white. But some portraits seemed just as good or even better in color. What do you think? This is a major consideration for my upcoming project: black and white or color? Or both? How do I decide?

8.1. M-san (color)

As I said before, very little cropping was done after taking the photograph. No cropping was done in the following shot. The blurring effect comes from the person making the infamous peace sign during the shot.

9. G-san

Black and white or color?

9.1. G-san (color)

The last shot I cropped a lot out in an attempt at artistic endeavor. Of course I want to focus on her face, but I also want to have my audience(s) wonder about what is being cropped out as well.

10. T-san

Black and white or color?

10.1 T-san (color)

For my project I want to focus on the face (I think) of the individual within Japanese cultural contexts. So once again I ask for your advice and feedback.

The shinnenkai was a lot of fun as well as a chance for an academic exercise. This year has been important for the izakaya because the master has begun to turn over the shop to his daughter and her husband. So stay tuned, there might be more posting on this izakaya. In the meantime, if you are interested you can click here to see more shots of the shinnenkai.


Daiva said...

I think you could include answers to a question such as, why they go to that particular izakaya (this is 'cultural' :)). Also, if you want to be playful, you can ask their bloodtype (a big thing in Japan) and what characteristics they would associate with it (e.g. adventurous, caring, altruist...). A close-up photo, age and hobbies would make it look a bit like a dating site/social network profile, and you may either avoid it or play with it.

B&W would allow your readers to concentrate on the overall composition of the face, while color makes the faces more 'realistic' and highlights details (including 'noise' - although the man with the headband looks good in color, the light on the left is a bit distracting).

Students, tourists, bloggers etc may want to capture images where people are not posing, capturing 'the life itself'. Asking for a permission and having the person to pose is a loss, and a gain too sometimes. But there's nothing you can do, people's privacy must be respected.

visual gonthros said...

Many thanks for your comments. Actually my future project won't involve the izakaya. I hear you about the dating profile thing, but of course I wouldn't write it up as such. Asking for certain info like occupation, hobbies, etc. might show certain trends among individuals within the group which could be interesting.

I didn't even notice the light in the color portrait of M-san. Yes, it is distracting; I guess I was focusing more on his facial qualities. In my future shootings I will have a little more control over the setting and the background (I think).

Anonymous said...

1) It's always useful to have (relevant) background info, but I guess there's the issue of whether the setting is suitable for getting it. Like in this case, wouldn't it have sort of ruined the mood if you had turned it into a mini interview?

2) For this type of event, a simple question that you can ask everyone you shoot might be good ("What do you hope from this year?", etc.). More questions, and more specific ones, would of course be more informative if you're really interviewing specific people. Your own description of what's particularly noteworthy in the photo might also be good, but I don't know what that description might include for tightly-framed face shots.

B&W makes the less than flattering skin tones, motion blur, ISO noise and poor resolution less distracting so I'd say it works for these photos at least. The b&w versions look a lot more "respectable" than the originals.

That said, if you're going to take portraits, you should get a real camera, a fast lens and/or some lights. Seriously. The image quality of these photos is visibly bad even in the thumbnails. Something like the Panasonic GF-1 with the pancake kit lens might work for you if you must keep it small and pocketable. It shoots better video than your Sanyo too.

Also, though you didn't ask I think you should lose the fake vignetting, or at least make it a lot less prominent (slightly darkened corners that lighten towards the centre instead of total blackness). And only use it for photos where it really adds to the framing.

Anyway, IQ issues aside, some of the people in your photos seem like real characters and you caught some really good expressions. As far as interacting with your subjects is concerned, I think you're good to go.

R. A. Stern said...

To be brief: B&W emphasizes the subject while color often emphasizes the settings. If the the cultural elements are in the setting it is likely best to show them in color. In my experience Japanese culture makes liberal use of color as an integral component to display, and this is terribly difficult to relate in B&W. For the extreme closeups B&W works well by minimizing minute distractions.

On the subject of biographic information, I think hobbies is a good kicking off point.

visual gonthros said...

Again, may thanks for the comments. I especially appreciate the tough love supplied by "Anonymous." These are the kinds of comments I want to see - anything to help improve. "Get a real camera..." Sigh... I know. Even my cell phone seems to take a better picture than my Sanyo Exacti 7.1 Mega. A new camera (hopefully some sort of Nikon SLR) is on the top of my list as soon as the new year research funds kick in...

A point I think I should clarify. My upcoming project will deal with a Japanese minority population and thus will be multi-sited. I agree that stopping to ask questions or fill out a survey during a shinnenkai would not be appropriate. My project will be comprised of an interview/photo shoot during which I hope to get posed portraits and some spontaneous shots as well. At that time I will plan on handing out a questionnaire to get answers to general questions (such as hobby, occupation, etc.) so as to see if there are common trends among these people. I will also schedule a second meeting where we will negotiate which photo(s) to use in the published form of the project. These are my general ideas for now...

B&W vs. color - R.A., you bring up an interesting point. While I definitely want to emphasize the face, the cultural context is important as well. How much do I supply with text as opposed to how much I supply with the image is an issue I am wrestling with.