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Entering the Inner Sanctum: Exploring the Art of Portraits

Apr 29, 2021 09:00AM ● By Anand Subramanian
Fisherman Potrait Anand Subramanian

Figure 1 - Portrait of Fisherman. Source - Photographed by Anand Subramanian

Human emotions have always been a fascinating subject to depict. For centuries, artists have created a visual world showcasing the depths of human nature. As you observe each painting or photograph, you realize artists have dived into the expanding universe of human individuality while keeping an open interpretation of the result, allowing the audiences to connect with subjects and find the relatable ground. A portrait is successful when the artist enters the inner sanctum of its subject, connecting and creating a visual bond that makes the audience stay for more than 15 seconds.

We live in a time where social media is flooding with pretend selfies and toxic positivity. During such chaos, creating a portrait and connecting with the subjects becomes a challenge. This is due to a massive flow of misinformation and misuse of photographs, creating a rift between the artist and subject. So now, every time a photographer approaches a portrait subject, they often don't see an artist, they see a vulture. 

Figure 2 - Portrait of Cotton Candy Seller. Source - Photographed by Anand Subramanian

The goal of a portrait photograph is to capture the true essence of a human being. Achieving that goal is possible only when we connect with our subjects, human to human. When making an introduction, an honest communication regarding your intention to use your subject’s portrait normally breaks the ice. There will be times when your desired subject will reject your purpose, but it is better to start the project with honesty than deception. If you get rejected, simply say thank you for their time and move on. After a hundred rejections, you will find one acceptance will be worth it.

Figure 3 - Portrait of Tea Estate Worker. Source- Photographed by Anand Subramanian

After your subject's approval, the real work begins. While taking care of the technical aspects (lighting, exposure, composition, and any surrounding elements), the photographer should engage with the subject through small talk. No matter what, the conversation should never stop. This practice helps to make the subject feel included in the overall creative process, rather than an outsider.

Figure 4 - Portrait of young monk from Bhutan. Source - Anand Subramanian


Once any technical aspects are taken care of, sit with your subject, maintaining the eye level, and give them subtle changes in their pose which they are comfortable executing. Once you have achieved your starting point pose wise, start taking photographs. Keep up the conversation, but this time start asking them questions with a philosophical edge. Every human has a philosophical ideology and having conversations regarding those aspects can reveal their true essence. Keep the engagement positive, and every time you look at the final output, shout positive affirmations such as "beautiful""brilliant", "amazing" etc. In the end, when you show them the photograph, there will be a moment where you and your subject will feel a mutual satisfaction.

Why go through so much trouble to get one photograph? Why not just exchange some pleasantries, take 100 different photographs, choose one, and say goodbye? Let me answer that with a simple example. A movie is memorable only when the actor plays the character to its perfection. Character perfection is attained only when they put themselves in the character's shoes. Likewise, when you are photographing a human being, conversations help you to understand them, get close to them, and enter their inner sanctum, where you can then portray them with utmost honesty. 

 Anand Subramanian is a freelance photographer and content writer based out of Tamil Nadu, India. Having a background in Engineering always made him curious about life on the other side of the spectrum. He leapt forward towards the Photography life and never looked back. Specializing in Documentary and  Portrait photography gave him an up-close and personal view into the complexities of human beings and those experiences helped him branch out from visual to words. Today he is mentoring passionate photographers and writing about the different dimensions of the art world.

Read more from Anand Subramanian:

The Dance Between Instrumentals and Visuals: An Opinion Piece

What 'This Is Us' Taught Me About Masculinity and Fatherhood

My 14-day Marriage with COVID-19