The Finding Shelter portrait series continues to be completely inspiring and challenging at the same time. Every time I walk into an animal shelter or arrive at some wonderfully generous animal rescue group's home base I am fully aware that the work that I am doing and the work that the people welcoming me are doing is so completely different. In a way, at least. I arrive with my camera and my seamless paper and some various pieces of equipment and my clipboard with model releases and my work pants and my work boots and I am ready for action. Photographing 10-15 complete strangers accompanied by 10-15 slightly nervous shelter animals is no small feat. It takes a level of concentration and lightness on my feet that feels like running a triathalon. The three tasks I must accomplish over and over again (I have about 5 minutes to create each portrait) are:
1) Connect with my subject- ask them engaging questions about their volunteer work, or about the dog they are sitting with. If I don't build their trust in the first 30 seconds of our interaction, the portrait will fall flat. I must be open and transparent and welcoming and full of respect, in order to expect the same thing back from my subjects. Many people told me that this project would be impossible because animal shelter volunteers are known for being better with animals than people. As a 'dog person' I can certainly understand that sentiment. But, I knew that if I approached Finding Shelter with true authenticity, making it known that I was an artist and a story teller, and was acting as a vehicle to lift up and share this movement's story, that the people-shy volunteers would respond positively. Which is what has been happening.
2) Focus my camera on two constanlty moving subjects. Though it looks like I have the volunteers just sit or stand and be still- that's not really what is happening. I let my subjects guide the sitting in the beginning- if they stand, I keep them standing. If they start petting the dog, I tell them to keep petting the dog. In order to keep these portraits powerful and real, and raw in a sense too, I need to stay out of the moment as much as possible. This is hard to do, especially when there are various people and animals wandering around behind me, naturally distracting my subjects. So I talk quietly to them, keep their attention focused slightly, but am also very aware of not inserting myself into the image being created. This is how a portrait should be done. It is much, much harder to do than it sounds. Think of all the millions of images we see every day- on Instagram or Facebook etc, from famous wedding photographers or pet photographers even- who do you see first when you look at those images? Probably not the actual subjects. The very first immediate impression or presence you sense when looking at most photographs or images today is the photographer who created it. They are placing themselves first, ahead of their subjects. For a lot of reasons I'm assuming, but also simply becuase it's just easier that way. Telling your subjects (the couple getting married, the dog and client posed at the park) exactly what to do and how to do it in order to create the image that the ARTIST wants is selfish. I am certainly guilty of doing that at times, when I need to reel my subects in a bit. But personally, I want to be invisible when I create my images. Epecially during the finding shelter volunteer portraits.
3) The final thing I must juggle is constantly being in control of my environment. That means making sure I am working in an area with the right kind of light (soft/open shade), and if that light changes (which it always does)- brekaing down my set up quickly and moving it. It also means making sure I know what's happening behind me at all times- though I want to keep these shoots as mellow and low-impact as possible for the animal shelters and rescue groups, they are always a bit hectic becasue I am pulling volunteers and animals away from their jobs for an hour. People mill about, dogs walk by on leash, chit chat happens. If I'm photographing outside (which happens most of the time) there could be passers by on the street, cars, trucks, etc. It's like directing a symphony but really being aware of the chaos and loving it, and bringing it into the final piece somehow. As frustrating as it can be when the light suddenly changes or a car honks it's horn, there is a liveliness, a sense of chaos and immediacy it adds to the portraits that I really enjoy. These are not sterile portraits in any way, even though they are shot against a white background. There is a realness that keeps it all very grounded and completely fulfilling.
Below are a few new favorite portraits from the past few shoots. Thank you to all the volunteers and staff and coordinators who have so genersouly been donating their time to help organize these shoots and get me to the shelters. Your work is keeping this project moving.
You can see more of the series here: www.jessefreidin.com/finding-shelter