“I, the Photograph”: Behind the camera lens

Roeland Verhallen 2 February 2014

The photography series I, the Photograph started off as an experiment: I was dissatisfied with conventional portraiture, because the subject is often very aware of the camera and of what both the camera and having one’s picture taken implies. I wondered: “how can I take an ‘honest’ portrait of someone?” In search of a satisfying answer, I obscured the camera and studio equipment with a large cloth, and asked subjects to bring five songs that moved them the most, in the hope that music would conjure ‘true emotions’ and avert their attention from my presence. I sat the subjects in front of the (obscured) camera and in between two speakers, then played the songs back-to-back while I sat silently behind the camera.

There is this incredibly subtle but distinct moment when someone’s eyes lose focus: the pupils become large, empty, black discs: that is the signal to capture their absence. Some would momentarily be distracted and notice me again, only to sink back into absence moments later. Others would remain immobile, a stream of tears continuing to run down their cheeks.

Are these then the ‘most honest’ portraits? One of the subjects exclaimed, upon seeing her photograph (six months after the shoot), "this isn’t me; not any more". Perhaps the portraits are honest, but only of the particular moment that they depict: whereas human beings are continuously changing, the photographs are frozen – silent imprints of a single moment in time. 

For me, photography is about being able to store a carefully constructed scene in a permanent form: not an accidental snapshot, or candid street scene, but the visual exploration of a concept or theme. I’m a perfectionist, so the biggest challenge for me is to let go slightly and allow chance to varnish the photograph with its occasional stroke of brilliance. In I, the Photograph, I was forced to let go to a very large degree, as I could not predict whatsoever how people would respond. Although most people were slightly apprehensive at first, what followed was an incredible and genuine openness. Some of the subjects were friends, but others were total strangers – regardless, when the music stopped the stories came: they told me about their memories, their emotions, their life-changing experiences.

Where normally photography is an objectifying, one-way interaction – I take a photograph – these shoots were mutually inspiring and emotive. 

I, the Photograph is showing at the Alison Richards Building until the 28 March. See more of Roeland's photography here.