Portrait Photography: can you capture what lies behind the social mask?

Jan 10, 2017

Enzo dal Verme

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Portrait Photography: can you capture what lies behind the social mask?

Jan 10, 2017

Enzo dal Verme

We love it when our readers get in touch with us to share their stories. This article was contributed to DIYP by a member of our community. If you would like to contribute an article, please contact us here.

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I focus my lens not on the forms but on the life that animates them. That’s what attracts me. If this triggers something in you, read on.

On December 20, 2011, exactly five years ago, I shot the first picture of my lucky series “Portraits In Silence”.

At the time, I wasn’t completely aware of being at a big turning point in my way of shooting pictures. I just followed my gut. Up until then, I used to have two very different approaches depending on the type of picture I was working on.

Shooting fashion or beauty, I was (and I still am!) very meticulous in choosing the model. Then there is makeup, hairstyling, lights, styling, location and…Photoshop! Everything goes into creating an image that exists only in my head, giving birth to a reality that doesn’t exist.

Doing portraits, on the other hand, the creative process seemed to be quite the opposite. Even now, that I have slightly changed my approach, I always seek a connection with some nuance deep within the person before I shoot. I highlight something in the photo that truly exists. Perhaps I have someone before me who is shy and introverted, and so my challenge is to put them at ease and reveal some hidden aspect in my image. Or else, what I bring out may be precisely their shyness. Or a little hesitation, a tender feeling, an inner strength… Of course, I am talking about the real thing, not about something faked to attract attention. We already have enough of that in our highly narcissistic society…
While shooting, I stay receptive and let myself be guided by intuition. I don’t decide what to capture ahead of time. I just prepare the ground for something to happen and then I click on the shutter.

Five years ago I started experimenting with a new approach that combines of these two and now it’s my favorite way of shooting. I still seek a very intimate and empathic connection with the subject, and — at the same time — I pay attention to the aesthetic balance as I do with fashion or beauty images.
It’s not always easy because not everyone is necessarily willing to drop (at least a bit) his/her social mask. But most times I manage to see it dropping. And if the subject only wants to show an idealized self to my camera, that can be very interesting too…
Sometimes they try to seduce the camera by looking cute, interesting, special… a lot of noise. If I can, I prefer to reveal the silence that lies below all that.
Every person has (or should I say “is”?) silence behind all the superficial agitation. And that’s precisely what I want to photograph and what I am attracted to.

I am also fascinated by the multitude of ways in which we humans deal with our life experiences (including being photographed!) and face our fears, dreams, ambitions, challenges… That’s probably why I find most people that I photograph extremely interesting. I look at a celebrity through the lens of my camera with the same interest I feel when loking at a farmer, a scientist or a sex worker.

Shooting portraiture is my way to inquire into reality, and every time I photograph someone I also end up feeling I know myself a bit better.

At times I recognize a state of mind that I have experienced too, other times I see something that has never developed in me or I witness an emotion that I know in a slightly different way… it’s a very interesting process.

For me the act of taking a photo is a sort of active meditation in which I observe the subjects of my portraits as if I were observing myself expressed in a different form.
I consider photographer and subject as two waves that do not share the same form but are both part of the same ocean. They can be seen as being completely different or essentially the same thing, depending on how one looks.

This approach leads me to use my camera to explore the inner silence of my subject before I seek aesthetic equilibrium in the image.

About composition, I love simplicity — a face and a gesture — maybe reminiscent of the Italian portraiture tradition that captivated me during my art history studies. One example is the portraits of Giovan Battista Moroni, a 16th-century artist famous above all for his ability to remain true to his model, not afraid to incorporate physical imperfections, and bring out something from within, evoked in the calm intensity of their gazes.

When I shoot my portraits, I focus my lens not on the forms but on the life that animates them. At the same time, I check the aesthetic impact of the image. When I talk about this approach, I am never sure if the listener understands what I really mean by that. But, at the end, it’s not too important. I see that a certain intensity reaches the viewer at an inner level anyway.

When I showed my Portraits In Silence exhibition in Barcelona, I was delighted to have a written comment form Giovanni Gastel. He was already a big name in photography before I even knew that one day I would have become a photographer myself.
These are his words:
“In my experience, I have found that the portrait is the most difficult and demanding photographic work. The image must recount the subject and their story, the photographer’s evocation of that story and also its own soul and story. These photos must always also be a self-portrait containing a message from the person behind the viewfinder. Enzo Dal Verme’s portraits are a perfect synthesis of these elements. Imagination and poetry live together in works that must be observed in silence to hear their powerful voice.”

Finding out that my work somehow touches the viewer is rewarding, especially when it happens with someone I look up to. Still, to me the best reward is the creative process itself, the enjoyment of it and the inevitable struggle. Inquiring into what lies behind the social mask of my subjects also has the advantage of helping me to connect with the silence behind my own social mask.

About the Author

Enzo dal Verme is an Italian portrait photographer based in Milan. He’s been in the photographic industry for over 15 years and had his work featured in various magazines like Vanity Fair, l’Uomo Vogue, Vogue Sport, Glamour and many others. If you would like to see more of his work, visit his website and follow him on Twitter. If you prefer paper to digital formats, you can read his book Storytelling for Photojournalists. This article was also published here and shared with permission.

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One response to “Portrait Photography: can you capture what lies behind the social mask?”

  1. Jason Avatar
    Jason

    @enzodalverme is there a link we’re meant to click on?!