Capturing the Essence of Your Portrait Subjects
If there’s one thing South Australian photographer Karen Waller has become renowned for, it’s not just her mastery of taking engaging portraits, it’s her uncanny ability to capture the essence of her subjects, to reveal so much about a person, all captured in a fraction of a second, in a single frame.
No stranger to awards, her images have been recognised and lauded in countless Australian and international competitions. Recently, she won the Portrait category of The Mono Awards (Australasia’s biggest competition for black and white photography), took out the Portrait Story category at the International Portrait Photographer of the Year, and was named runner-up in the Black and White category of the Asia Pacific Photography Awards. She has also been a finalist for the National Photographic Portrait Prize and named South Australian Portrait Photographer of the Year multiple times.
Creativity was always encouraged during Karen’s formative years. Growing up in rural South Australia, her father’s work meant that the family travelled around a great deal, and she attended seven different primary schools. Regardless, her childhood was one full of freedom and the ability to explore the environment where she lived. “My appreciation for nature, wildlife, and the landscape formed at an early age, through those childhood experiences,” she says. By reflecting on the important influences early in her life, it’s clear to Karen why she’s drawn to the natural world for inspiration.
But Karen wasn’t always destined to be a photographer. She grew up loving to paint and draw. It was this love that saw her initially pursue a career as an artist. During her formal studies to be a painter and visual artist, she came to appreciate the importance of composition and how colour can be used to create both a sense of spatial depth and influence our emotional response. But it wasn’t until she picked up a Polaroid camera in the 1990s that her interest in photography first took hold. As her interest grew, she sought greater control over the photographic process, and in the early 2000s she bought her first DSLR and enrolled in further study.
Over the years, she has developed and honed her skills through education, practice, experimentation, and self-critiquing. Additionally, her involvement with the former AIPP (Australian Institute of Professional Photography) provided numerous opportunities to develop her skills through participating in the State and National awards. But it was through her connections with a community of photographers that she could seek advice and feedback. This, she says, was incredibly important to the development of her skills. Experimentation and being open to failure have also been important teachers on her journey and a critical aspect of the learning process.
Sources of inspiration
Like many great artists, Karen draws her inspiration from numerous sources and various photographers. For her, it comes from being present in a landscape, admiring the work of other artists, and even from having conversations with strangers. And she’s constantly inspired by the work of other photographers and visual artists.
A huge fan of Canberra-based visual artist and poet Judith Nangala Crispin, Karen feels that there is a poignancy and painterly quality to the work to which she is drawn. It’s also the lengthy and complicated photographic process used by Crispin that is a huge source of inspiration.
Karen is a big admirer of many ongoing projects undertaken by other photographers. Of particular note, she’s been inspired by bodies of work produced by Australian photographers Nic Duncan, Carole Mills Noronha, James Simmons, and Jayne McLean. In 2020, Karen travelled with Jayne to photograph the people in Ethiopia’s Omo Valley. She also loves the moody portraits by American photographer Dan Winters, along with the way he’s able to succinctly tell a subject’s story through his images.
There are a number of common themes running through Karen’s work. One fundamental element that can easily be discerned is her need to try and reveal the humanity of her subjects. She does this by capturing their vulnerability. “I also attempt to reveal not simply the vulnerability, but the strength of my subject,” she says. “I want to express the importance of being vulnerable and how powerful this is.”
Interested in ideas around aging, grief, depression, and identity as themes for her work, Karen appreciates that there can often be discomfort around these challenging areas. By experiencing the discomfort, she says she is able to get to the heart of the theme and her subject. “In exploring these themes, I want there to be a sense of hope, even if minute or subtle, to be present in my portraits.”
Capturing the essence
One thing common in Karen’s portraits is her ability to effectively capture the essence of a person. Asked what her secret is, she reveals that it’s crucial to value the story of her subject, and to be mindful of the fact that everyone has a story worth telling.
“Part of the portrait process is to ask the difficult questions, and then allow the subject to reveal themselves in a space that feels safe,” she says. “In forming a connection with my subject, I need to also be empathetic and vulnerable.”
For her personal work, Karen says that it is important to spend time with her subjects prior to shoot day so as to give them the space and time to share their story with her.
Three pearls of wisdom
When it comes to improving and taking one’s portrait photography to the next level, Karen offers three useful tips.
- Define the story of your subject. What is it you want your audience to know about your subject? Consider their environment and how that may tell the story. Simplicity is often the key to a successful portrait.
- Be brave and open to rejection. Seek out people who have an interesting story or face. Start a conversation with a stranger. Be open to failing and not always achieving the results you had hoped for.
- Technical skills are important. Sound technical skills give you the freedom to capture portraits in a variety of situations and locations. Technical skills apply to the entire process, from capture through to post- production.
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