Boban James

Why I Love Photographing People

Back when I was a hobbyist photographer, I rarely took pictures of people. I  photographed a lot of nature and landscapes because I didn’t have to seek permission from nature. I was shy and diffident, and I could rarely muster the courage to ask someone if I could take their photo (friends and family excepted of course).

As photography began to put its addictive hooks into me, so did my aspirations of becoming a more well-rounded photographer. This is when I discovered Photo Festivals- the ultimate gathering of “serious”, like-minded photographers putting their craft at display for all to see. These photo festivals are where I was exposed to documentary photographers, photojournalists and other deep practitioners of the craft. I heard talks from “war” photographers who were covering the then war in Syria and documentary photographers who had focused their attention on everything from the Fukushima fallout to transgender communities.

It was an eye opening moment for me. I realized that photographing people and telling their stories is probably one of the most interesting things a photographer can do with their skill. As the photographer Joe McNally once said, "the camera is a passport into people's lives".

I collected photobooks and started reading about the working lives of iconic photographers. I learnt that the greatest portrait photographers have presence of mind, exceptional people skills and most importantly, a way of peering into the soul of their subjects and capturing it. Talent with the camera and lighting skills are a given.

Churchill’sportrait by Yousuf Karsh- Churchill was smoking a cigar and Karsh wanted him to remove it which he refused. So just before he pressed the shutter, Karsh quickly leapt over and removed the cigar. And that gave the world this scowling, belligerent photo that typifies Churchill and the British spirit of WW2.

The great portrait photographer Platon, of whose work and people skills I am a huge fan of, once spoke about how intimidating it was to take Putin’s iconic photo for Time Magazine. Putin came to the shoot at the Kremlin surrounded by bodyguards, assistants and translators. Platon had done his research on Putin and knew he liked the Beatles, and that Putin’s favourite song was “Yesterday". When he mentioned this to Putin, the ice cold barrier between the dictator and the photographer was instantly broken and access was granted. 

When I quit my corporate career to become a photographer I was at a crossroads in my life. I wasn’t sure what it was that I wanted to do in photography. Like most people in photography I had been inspired by editorial photography in magazines such as National Geographic, Life, The New York Times and other stalwart names.  I realized that I had all along enjoyed interacting with people and photography was merely a tool through which I brought the essence of their personalities to the fore. It also was a way for me to make sense of the world. This was a pivotal moment in my photography career- becoming a portrait photographer in Singapore.

Since then I have photographed hundreds of people. Even though I do a lot of corporate photoshoots in Singapore, my work also leads me to photograph people in diverse professions. For example I have frequently worked with the poet and educator Jennifer Ann Champion and here are some of my favourite photos from our shoots. The first set below was shot on a 30 year old medium format film camera using Lomography Early Grey 100 speed film that I developed at home. These images speak to me because they're very "raw" and unpolished and real.

As an editorial photographer based out of Singapore, I also enjoy conceptual photoshoots. Jennifer had written a poem called "I Am a Unicorn" and wanted to commission a photoshoot to go along with the poem:

Actors are probably amongst my favourite people to photograph. It’s interesting to see them go through the range of emotions in the photo studio. 

The stage actor Sharda Harrison as Frieda Kahlo: 

I am no Platon but I take pride in the fact that people enter my photography studio in Singapore and come out of the photoshoot with a sense of having shared in a collaborative experience. My style has always been to capture the decisive moment (with apologies to Henri Cartier Bresson) and many moments arise in the course of my interactions with the subject. Rather than posed and formal portraits that stifle the true personality of the subject, I have been often told that my sessions are freewheeling and fun.

Even when I do corporate photoshoots in Singapore, I love engaging with my subjects. Many people come for a photoshoot with trepidation. Not everyone enjoys photoshoots and having a photographer talk to you about your life and interests often takes the pressure away. 

At this point in my photography career, it's safe to say that creating portraits is my raison d'etre! 

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