Image by Chris Blackhurst
What is a portrait?

Portraits are one of the most popular areas of photography, experienced and appreciated by photographers and non-photographers alike. From the selfie to the celebrity on the cover of a magazine people are drawn to look at images of faces. But what are we really seeing when we look at a portrait? I imagine that portraits of famous people are popular because in looking at them the viewer may feel that they gain a deeper insight into a person they may only know vicariously through their public persona. People also like portraits of themselves and members of their family; it gives them a chance to put on their best smile, they can be recorded for posterity looking beautiful and happy and such images can be looked back on fondly in future years.

But is that all there is to this popular avenue of photography? It seemed the common consensus was that a good portrait could somehow reveal the inner truth of a person, but is that really true? Firstly when you point a camera at a sitter they adopt their everyday camera smile (we’ve all got one) and even direction from the photographer merely makes them adopt a different expressions. So if all a portrait really is just a close-ups of peoples’ faces with forced expressions - where is the truth in that?

I decided to develop a structured approach which would render all the shots I took neutral, or at least equal, so that I might see if there really is any truth at all revealed in a person’s image.

To bring out these inner secrets I decided to employ the techniques of an interrogator. Through research I came across a controversial but also age-old method of interrogation and punishment called ‘stress positions’. Stress positions employ simple techniques such as standing in a crouched position and/or holding weights with outstretched arms - often nothing more than a person would experience at a fitness class. The difference being, when used for torture, these positions are forced upon the victims for long periods of time. I had no intention of doing this, however the positions could be used the to the extent that the discomfort caused might momentarily strip the sitters of their natural reserve and propensity to pose for the camera and hopefully produce and simple and genuine image.

In practice I found it was a delicate balance. There was a golden moment at which people began to lose their urge to pose but before they lost composure through the strain of the stress position. That was the point I had to release the shutter.

To be totally honest, after developing the negatives, I expected to see nothing but a bunch of images of uncomfortable people. However I was initially puzzled when I first saw all the shots together. The expressions were not as uniform as I had anticipated from such a structured approach. However after spending some time with the images I realised that this wasn't a flaw in my process - it was the goal. My method may have actually produced insightful portraits.

So do they reveal 'truth'? Well it surprises me to say it but I actually think these images really may have revealed something of the core nature of the sitters. Some images appear to show more than others but I think the image of each person suggests to me a single word which goes some way to sum up their true character (noble, wilful, cautious, weary, serene etc.) which given I didn't even believe in the validity of portraits when I started this project is a surprising thing indeed!

My heartfelt thanks go to all those who have given their time and likenesses to help me in this experiment.

Bob France.

Image by Chris Blackhurst