In whatever one does, there must be a relationship between the eye and the heart. One must come to one’s subject in a pure spirit. One must be strict with oneself. There must be time for contemplation, for reflection about the world and the people about one. If one photographs people, it is their inner look that must be revealed.
My wife Susan has always maintained that when I am working with someone in my healing practice, that I am a mirror: “something that faithfully reflects or gives a true picture of something else.” But I am more than just a passive pane of coated glass. My work, my activity, is to reveal to the sufferer who he really is. I, as it were, hold the mirror up to his nature. I hold up the mirror—and adjust it to help him see, at last, his true nature. A snapshot is only a picture, but a portrait by a master photographer is a true picture, going deep within the subject to reveal his inner self, his true nature.
A major aspect of my therapeutic photography is to take portraits to reduce the subject’s anguish. I just ask him to sit or stand before me—no more posing is involved than that. I don’t particularly care about the lighting or anything else except the face—always the face, full face—and only the face. And especially the eyes. I do try to minimize any disturbance in the background, and I never use flash, for that always introduces an element of fear.
As soon as someone knows you’re going to take a flash picture they steel themselves for the assault, which is even worse with a pre-flash, the red-eye reduction flashing. So you’re better to use very fast film in dim light rather than use flash. Flash is always an assault. If I’m taking pictures, I want to show someone’s Life Energy, so I never use flash. Yes, of course it has validity for other purposes, but that’s not my purpose. My purpose is that when you look at this, you will have your Life Energy raised, you will feel beloved. But if the subject is going into fear—because you know how you feel if a flash is about to go off—you know, it’s fear and that fear will be photographed. Of course you can take flash of a piece of bark or something, but not of a person. All else except the soul of the person is unimportant. I am only interested in finding and revealing the Inner Perfection.
For therapeutic portrait photography it is important to use the lenses that subject feel safest with. I researched this, and found some lenses that do seem to work better from this point of view, for reasons that I don’t fully understand. Those lenses allow me to stand back a little bit from the subject so I’m outside their body shell area, the personal space that extends about five feet out from the body. I want to be outside that so they don’t feel I’m intruding and I’m inside them. I use a longer focus lens, I can just stand back and I’m not assaulting them. I want to see them not in some pose, but as they really are.
When you come to photograph the face and head, it must be the whole face, including the top of the hair and down somewhere to a bit below the neck. If you cut off any part of that, it produces a profound negativity. It is a very strange thing: you can photograph an elbow, an arm or a breast, a foot, or torso on its own, but if you’re photographing the head it needs to be the whole head. Many people do portraits so they’ll show one eye or just the eyes, but it always produces tremendous negativity. If it’s to do with the head, everything has to be there.
Now the therapy starts. I believe that the deepest healing occurs when the sufferer finds his Soul; and that it is therefore the truest role of the healer to assist in that. As a “therapeutic photographer” taking a portrait, through the viewfinder I look into the subject’s eyes—always the eyes. That’s what I focus on. The eyes—the windows of the soul. And I go deep down into him through his eyes until I sense his deepest self, his love. I feel his Belovedness. I Know I am loved by him. His soul revealed to me, I now capture this image of it.
When through the viewfinder I find his soul, he too now becomes aware of it. His love, however deeply buried, rises up revealing itself to him. And to all as it now radiates, through his eyes, and emanates from all of his being. He is now bestowing Belovedness.
Another way I do this is to have my wife talk to the person, all the time emanating Life Energy, love, to him, with me right beside her. She gets him animated, talking about things that he loves while I’m taking photographs of him. She encourages him to talk of what really matters to him, that which most obviously originates in his soul and exemplifies it.
While the subject is involved with Susan, revealing ever-more aspects of his deep self, I look through the lens into each of his eyes, focusing the camera first on one eye, and then on the other. His deep eyes, the eyes that radiate from his soul, are now so obvious through Susan’s work, so opened. I then go into each, deeply, deeply, and suddenly it seems as if I Know him, Know his soul. It appears as though I’m just looking at the face but I’m going through their eyes deep inside them, first one eye and if you look closely you’ll see I move the camera just a little bit to get on the other eye, and I go right in through the eye, deep down until I feel I’ve made contact with the soul. The soul says, thank you and starts to come back to me and then, and not before, I click the shutter. Whether he is aware of it or not, he has changed, as have I, and Susan—and every later viewer.
“Does a portrait reveal what someone’s inner self is like? Do you know what I believe? I believe that everyone wears a mask, and beneath that mask is another mask. So what a photographer can reveal are the various masks we all wear.” So declares the portrait photographer Matthew Rolston.[i]
My work as a healer is to help the sufferer peel away these masks to reveal to himself the Godliness, the Divinity, the Innate Perfection, the Buddha-Nature, that is his inner Self. And so I try to do the same with my portrait photography, seeing it—and employing it—as a form of healing.
And of course I am so privileged. Every time I find a sufferer’s soul I am reminded of my own. For the sufferer, every sufferer, at that moment becomes my Mother of Love. The sufferer is always changed by this experience, however momentary. He finds his soul through my finding it, through his knowing that I want to find it, that I Know it is there within him to be found. This is a therapeutic portrait. His anguish has been reduced—as it will be every time in the future he looks at the photograph. As will be the anguish of others when they see it. For his Belovedness, coming through his eyes, will help them to find their love, and then to bestow it on others as Belovedness bestowed.
There is nothing dramatic about these portraits. Except that unlike nearly all others they portray Belovedness. And their Belovedness actuates ours.
Let’s now consider what I mean by portrait. A picture is not a portrait. From a Rembrandt portrait I learn a great deal about the person, the personality, of the subject. But consider the Vermeer painting of a kitchen maid. We learn about the kitchen and about her activity in it, but nothing about her as a person. It is merely a picture. In this light, consider this statement: “[The photographer] carefully controls each element within the frame to create … formal compositions. The invariable square format provides a pre-ordained symmetry within which the models are placed … [The photographer] stages her drama: a series of physical manipulations of the models’ bodies.”[ii]
A picture of a person, as distinct from a portrait, is an image of what was in the photographer’s imagination. A picture shows us the photographer’s personality, his self, not the subject’s. The subject is used by the photographer whose purpose was not to present the self of the subject, let alone the deepest self. A picture is self-centered, whereas a portrait is subject-centered.
Imagine you come across a friend you haven’t seen for years. “I’m married now,” he tells you, and proudly produces from his wallet a photo of his wife. Certainly it’s not just a picture. But is it a portrait, or “merely” a snapshot? The great photographer David Douglas Duncan published a book of photographs of the even greater photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson.[iii] A huge controversy erupted over the propriety of publishing them, which is a story in its own right. The photographer who most intruded on others vehemently refused to have his own photograph taken—as it would be an intrusion!
One of the criticisms of Duncan’s book was that it used snapshots of Cartier-Bresson, not portraits. Less important, less true, less revealing. After all, they were all taken within five minutes without any planning. Just suddenly “snapped” by Duncan with his wife’s little point-and-shoot camera. Hardly serious—not really portraits.
Ironically, it was Cartier-Bresson who pioneered the seemingly casual snapshot—what became known as “candid” photography. And candid means honest, not posed. (The Latin candidus, from which candid is derived, meant white, pure, guileless.) He was taken just as he was, just as he revealed himself in those five minutes. And remember that to pose means “to represent falsely.” The more planning, the more posing—the more artifice—the more artificial the presentation, the less honest. The more the ego of the photographer becomes involved, the more the portrait starts to become a picture, the less of the true Self will be revealed.
So your friend’s photo of his wife is unposed, unplanned—it is her. It may not be revealing her in any depth—snapshots rarely do—but it is closer to being really her, just her. Whereas with planned portraits it is always her and the photographer.
The limitation of a snapshot is that it almost invariably shows only a physical likeness of the subject. A posed portrait is intended to go deeper, to reveal more of the character of the subject—but it also reveals the character of the photographer. Nonetheless, there is this deeper intention. However, let us remember that all of us are always revealed in every moment of our existence—in every “snap.” Staging may help to make certain features more obvious but they are always there to be seen, to be felt, to be Known in the heart.
Every face is always revealing the soul within. Especially through the eyes, the windows of the soul. Some windows are so open you can readily see into the brightly-lit interior. But with some you must first draw back the dark, heavy curtains and peer intently inside. Nonetheless, as darkened as the room may be, it is basically the same. It is your looking, your light, that now makes it visible to the inhabitant. And to all the others now drawn to the light.
The darker the room, the more the anguish. And the art of therapeutic portrait photography is not just to paint with light, but to Enlighten—to induce and proclaim Belovedness.
Consider now the etymology of the word “portrait.” It comes from the Latin pro, forth and trahere, to draw (hence attract, to draw towards, and abstract, to draw from). Thus to portray is to draw forth. To draw forth what? That depends on the purpose, the intention, of the photographer. To me to portray is to draw forth the soul, the love always there within.
I regard the biggest task, the work, the Karma, of our lives as being to overcome our anguish, and to help others overcome theirs. To Know Belovedness and to live accordingly. And photography, if so intended, can help us in our life-long labor.
To touch the soul, however unknown, is to bring it into awareness and to draw it forth. I go into him, into his eyes, through his eyes, and touch his soul. Which then through his eyes and then through mine touches my soul.
One portrait photographer in a way was right when he said that 98% of portrait photography is moving furniture. So use this in the background and that in the background and so forth. When you look at famous portraits, say by Cartier-Bresson, they routinely used a 50 mm lens, sometimes a 35mm, Garry Winogrand used a 28mm. I would just as soon use a 90mm because I’m further away.
But there is something else too. What Cartier-Bresson was doing was very beautiful work, but, for example, you see Matisse in his room with everything around him so that you see his total environment—and you see less of Matisse. I want you to see just the person, and at his or her most loving, not at his most theatrical, not staged this way or that way.
Some anthropologists are criticized for attempting to help those they are studying, even, for instance, for feeding a starving baby. They are admonished by strict academics for interfering with the subject, altering the experiment. Similarly, photographers debate whether they should put down their cameras and instead give aid in an emergency. Are they to be dispassionate or involved? I am not a photographer of war or other disasters, nor even of individual grief. But nonetheless, I do believe that my role as a photographer is to be very actively involved with whoever’s portrait I am taking.
Not involved with them on what might be called a personal level, the particulars of their lives, but with something far deeper. Not with who they are, but who they ARE. I am interested, dedicated, to attempting to reveal to the camera, and thus to the world, the very deepest aspect of their selves. Perhaps it is too presumptuous, but I try to help them to reveal their souls, their Buddha-Nature, their Godliness—whatever metaphor you choose to use for the ineffable, the very essence of their being, that which they do not know of themselves. It is this heart-Knowledge alone that can heal them—heal all of us—of their and our underlying anguish.
It is the First Noble Truth of the Buddha: that our lives are anguish, and this anguish is only assuaged when we find our souls. When we Know that we each are a part of the Great Soul—what Emerson called the Over-Soul.
This I seek in the person before me, whether he be in my consulting chair or before my camera. My purpose in photographing him is always to help him Know his soul, and to help later viewers to find their souls through the exercise and example of finding his.
That is what interests me. I don’t want all the environment, I just want the soul of the person. And not the soul that the photographer says he believes is the soul of person, but what is the Soul.
In this way I am an involved photographer. Totally involved. As I see it, every portrait, every click of the shutter, should be a healing experience: a discovery of the subject’s soul and therefore of our own. It was stated by Aristotle that the very purpose of drama was anagnorisis, gained knowledge. In this sense, every photograph can be a moment of high drama: the gaining of Knowledge of the soul.
That’s exactly what I do with every therapy session, with every healing session. I’m making contact, by one means or another, with the soul of the person because their anguish is that they can’t find their soul. I’m helping them to find their soul by whatever I do in my practice with them. I’m just doing the same thing with photography. Very often in my office I will ask the person to concentrate on an object. While they’re doing that, I look into their eyes. I can’t just sit and stare into their eyes because people become frightened about that. I distract them a little bit then I go right in, each eye at a time, down to the soul, until I feel it coming back to me. That’s when I take the picture.
That’s what I believe portraits can do. Now they’re usually fairly humdrum. It’s just the person. There’s no magic around it. You can’t charge a million dollars for it because there is no setup in a way. There is no theatricality about it, no staging, just the person, and the deepest aspect of the person. You see the person’s love, their soul coming through, and I feel beloved by them when I take the picture. Then others look and they feel beloved. That’s what a portrait should be. It doesn’t matter what clothes they wear, or the setting. What matters is The Feeling.
[i] American Photo, Vol. XVIII/2 (March 2007), p. 71.
[ii]Aperture, vol. 176 (Fall 2004), p. 22.
[iii] David Douglas Duncan, Faceless: The Most Famous Photographer in the World (New York: Assouline, 2000).