Thanks to everyone who uploaded photographs for our “Not Just A Face” portrait assignment. There was a remarkable variety of ideas and approaches, offering numerous opportunities to comment on visual approaches. I got to give my thoughts on what makes a portrait and what goes beyond into the storytelling realm. That was the aim of this challenging assignment, which required stretching your imaginations and being open to new ideas of the definition of portraiture.
Many of you got past the head shot portrait and gave us full stories. But even with the more traditional portraits, there were many beauties. I especially wanted to thank people who posted the tiniest beings to the largest animals and landscapes. Portraits of bugs and animals give us appreciation for the magnificence of Mother Nature, and I regard landscapes as portraits of the earth. A goal of this assignment was to get you to think beyond a traditional idea, expand how we look at one another, and focus beyond the face to see even more about someone or something.
But another extremely important goal about this assignment was this: in order to photograph people in the most honest, intimate way, we have to gain their trust. We are asking our subjects to be vulnerable before us, and thus, the world. In exchange we must also be vulnerable and honest.
Over the past two years, I have been photographing a young woman who lost her face in a gun accident. The story appears in the September issue of National Geographic magazine. It’s a heartbreaking story that ended up being one of great inspiration and victory. But throughout the assignment I had to gain the trust of both the girl and her family because of so many broken hearts and exhausting efforts to move forward. These people let me into their lives and made me part of their family.
One of my biggest efforts was to constantly photograph this young woman, Katie, to make beautiful portraits of her when she felt anything but that. But she had courage and pride, and that’s what I tried to respect and capture each time I photographed her.
In the end, Katie got a new face, and learned a powerful lesson: we are more than our faces. We are our character, our hearts, our dreams and wishes and integrity. We owe these things to the people who allow us to photograph them.
While making my final selections, I loved being challenged to make some tough decisions. In the final selections I included approaches and ideas I thought best fit with the assignment, where we could learn something about the world that we might not have considered before. In this extended portraiture we learn more about one another, where we are from, how we grew up, what is important to us, and how environments and traditions shape us. Photography has no limits or boundaries; we are the ones who impose limitations on it. And faces can be like that as well. If we measure someone only by their face, we miss out on the whole being.
To view Katie's New Face story, please follow this link to read more. To learn more from photographer Maggie Steber on capturing Katie's story, please follow this link where Maggie and National Geographic photographer Lynn Johnson speak on capturing portraits.