Portraits of the Soul: By Bill McAuley
What is soul? And how do you capture it?
For me, the soul is the essence of an individual, the emotional energy that reflects their humanity. Using a camera is one way of revealing the truth about another person.
You capture soul by having the empathy to press the shutter at the moment the subject reveals themselves. The photographer’s eye processes the capture of the image, but it’s his heart that decides when to fire the shutter. It is the same with landscape or still life photography. It is the emotion and feeling of the photographer that decides when the shot is right; you either feel it or you don’t.
Vulnerability is the human trait that I love to capture the most when shooting an assignment. When the subject expresses their true self and lets their mask slip. Click! That is the moment I will fire my camera.
I love vulnerability because it brings people together. It may be laughter or fear, wonder or anger, but at that moment there is an intimacy between the subject and the viewer. A sharing of understanding and most importantly empathy.
Being able to share these emotions is the photographer’s privilege. The role of the artist is to educate so we struggle on!
Portraiture can encourage the viewer to feel emotion -- love, anger, compassion, sadness, empathy and abhorrence. Any reaction validates the potency of the image. It has been a great privilege to try to respectfully capture the humanity of my subjects, their heartfelt expressions of confusion, pride, adoration, scorn, horror, grief, amusement, hatred, passion, joy and pain.
Hopefully, during the process of image making, the photographer will also feel emotion -- love, anger, compassion, sadness, empathy and abhorrence. That’s his investment in the process of capturing soul. It’s an emotional thing.
Photography is a weird, hybrid transformative art, both technical and soulful. Consider the irony: the camera is a machine able to clinically capture something as abstract and fleeting as human emotion.
How can a machine have the ability to illustrate the subtle nuances of a person’s being? The answer of course is that the photographer’s empathy has something to do with the sensitivity of the image. After all, he is the one operating the machine.
Hopefully, people viewing this book, will feel some of the things that I felt when I was shooting the subjects that feature in ‘Portraits of the Soul.’
But there are times when the viewer will see something completely different to that which I intended. Beauty really is in the eye of the beholder and sometimes the photographer’s subtlety reveals the sub-conscious. Many people have complimented me on connections or nuances they’ve made, but which I have been completely unaware of in my work.
Sometimes, as a photographer, I just got damn lucky and I admit there was not much empathy or awareness from me as I took the picture, but the resulting image possessed a power I couldn’t see at the time of shooting the image.
I love humanity and want to communicate, to reach out and shout, “Hey, have a look at this”!
I tried to build rapport with every subject, wanting to connect with whoever they might be: rock stars, criminals, street people, artists, or the kids next door, they all had a story to tell and we, as photographers, need to have enough empathy to honestly portray the essence of each and every one of them.
Why is the still image so powerful and arguably more powerful than the moving image? Because it asks of the viewer: what happened just before the image was captured, and what will happen next? The action is suspended in time and space, and that creates intrigue, even at a sub-conscious level.
Many people have a more emotional reaction to the black-and-white image and wonder why that is so. Without the distraction of colour, the viewer can more readily access the emotional state of the subject. Humans see the world in colour and therefore a black-and-white image can have a more dreamlike quality and distance the subject matter from reality. Some consider black-and-white photographs more “artistic”.
Black and white images also have a tendency to be more compelling because they accentuate light and shadow. Dramatic lighting quickly captures the viewer’s attention. Colour has advantages, too. It catches the eye and quickly draws the viewer into the image. And colour creates mood, its warm tones suggesting positive emotions, such as optimism or joy, while cold tones can elicit sadness or emptiness.
Photographers freeze moments in time, making images that will later become historical documents. Images from the past seem to grow more powerful as time goes by.
Pictures I took of ex-Prime Minister Gough Whitlam winning the election in 1974 seemed nothing special at the time, but now, almost half a century later and after his death, those images are strong and powerful. Time has made them stronger, more significant and given them a greater “wow” factor.
For me, it’s very exciting to think that people may look back on our world in 500 years’ time. Clearly, we have a duty to archive these images for future generations to see.
I hope they don’t judge us too harshly when they do so.