I first photographed Nate on June 14, 2009 as the official beginning of this project.
Since then, I’ve photographed him three more times, twice for the tattoo project. He’s been accommodating and accessible, comfortable enough to be photographed, eager to help out with the project, not seeming to care that I don’t really know what I’m doing. He works outdoors so is physically fit and photogenic as hell. And all those tattoos… so many stories to tell.
In short — he’s been a perfect subject and a good friend. That’s all the more remarkable because while I photographed him, I asked him to go to unpleasant places, to think about the emotions he was feeling when he was tattooed, to remember why he decided to get the ink.
For the photographs, I chose to focus on the tattoo on his left forearm. He told me he had gotten it to cover the scars from self-inflicted mutilations from his youth, acts of loathing for a body that did not match his internal sense of self.
I found myself struggling with the best way to photographically represent such a powerful story. The tattoo was the portal to the narrative, but the photograph had to be about more than the inked skin — I wanted it to be about the man wearing the ink.
To match the rawness of his story, I chose to photograph Nate in my bare garage. I had no flash so relied on the ambient lighting, which called for some decisions. Wanting a small aperture to obtain a good depth of field and keep everything in focus meant longer shutter speeds that might result in a blurred image if Nate moved. I experimented with both, resulting in some images with the proper exposure but a blurry left forearm and others with better focus but under-exposed In both cases, Nate’s eyes were lost in the shadows of his brow — not ideal when wanting to convey the emotions of the subject.
And even though I had taken care to remove the crap in the background, I failed to unplug an orange electrical cord that now jumps out of the photos.
Then, I improvised and illuminated Nate with the headlights of my car, but he had to hunker down to be situated squarely in the beams. I like this photo quite a bit, but I am not sure that it portrays the tattoo as part of the focus of the image. (And again, there’s that annoying orange cord in the background.)
Nate agreed to be photographed a second time and so three months later, we were back in the garage. To improve the lighting, I used a little flash I found in an old camera bag and bounced the light off of a silver reflective disk, using my digital point-and-shoot camera to estimate the necessary exposure. (Still hadn’t gotten around to getting a light meter.) To get past the depth of field issue, I asked Nate to hold his forearm up next to his body rather than have it extended. That allowed the camera to come in closer and become more intimate with him.
And this time, I remembered to unplug that damn orange cord!
The resulting images seemed flat, lacking contrast and needing some serious color correction. I was able to make a presentable image using Photoshop (with before and after corrections on the left and right sides), and I got close to this correction in the darkroom. At the time, I was taking a portrait photography class where we all gave feedback on our images, and the problem identified with this photo was the ceiling light. I had let too much of it into the photo and it draws the eye away from the subject. I had not remembered to carefully check the borders of the photo when framing the subject. Unfortunately, that meant that the image still wasn’t right.
I had the poor guy out in the garage again a month later. By this time, it was October and it was getting cold, but Nate was a real trooper out there with his shirt off. And as they say, the third time was the charm. No orange cord, no shadows over his eyes, no big ceiling light mucking things up. I had finally captured Nate in the way I had originally intended. (You will notice that part of this image graces the header of this photoblog.)
We didn’t sit down for the interview until January of 2011, a full year-and-a-half after I first photographed him. During our conversation, Nate disclosed that our first photography session brought up some feelings of dysphoria that he hadn’t felt in some time. You will hear me respond that he never mentioned that to me, as though I was accusing him of not being forthcoming. In actuality, I felt guilty that the act of participating in the project might have been detrimental to him. Had he told me right away about the dysphoria, I likely would have canceled the shoot.
As I listen again to this interview, I am struck by how much Nate has given in this process of photography and narration. He did not hold back, and although I sound as though his story did not affect me, that was just a front. Some of his narrative was difficult to hear, but as he had the fortitude to put himself out there, I was damn sure not going to let him see me react under the weight of his story.
This first post is rather experimental. Like the photography class where we all discussed and critiqued the photos we had taken, I have created this photoblog to get input during the progression of the project. If you feel so inclined, please use the comments section to mention what works and what doesn’t and how you feel about this project. Your feedback will help me improve the work.
Thank you– Anderson