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The Intimacy and Complexity of Shooting Portraits During a Pandemic

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Dec 09 2020

It was during my 800,000th video call of 2020 when I started to wonder about what the rest of my colleague Tamara’s apartment looked like. Her face, sitting in front of a beautiful brick wall, had been on my screen for weeks as we worked on our current project. Before COVID-19 sent us off to work from home, we used to work together on projects at the IDEO Cambridge studio. Now she was living in yet another window on my desktop.

I’m an interaction designer by trade, but I’m also a photographer. I’ve managed to bring those two passions together in my work at IDEO. Now, with all the available software, I can do the former from my house, but I had pressed pause on much of my photography work—and I missed it.

From my couch, I realized I wasn’t missing the weight of my camera or meticulously packing my camera bag—I missed people. Could I recapture the magic of an in-person portrait session from my living room? And could I make all these video calls feel less soul-sucking in the process?

Given the constraints of a global pandemic, I asked myself a how might we: How might we photograph people in a socially-distanced way while still preserving a sense of intimacy?

That’s where Tamara comes back in. I’d seen one or two photographers shoot “virtual portraits” online and I was inspired to give it a go. I was nervous, but experimenting with somebody I knew from “real life” prevented the process from feeling too daunting.

It went like this: During (yes, you guessed it) a video call, I asked Tamara to choose a few well-lit places in her home where she’d been spending a lot of time during lockdown. As she showed me her apartment through the laptop’s camera, it was like the world suddenly expanded.

We decided on a spot in the kitchen where she had been making a lot of tea. In order to frame the shot, Tamara created an improvised laptop stand using a chair. I asked her to open the camera on her phone and set it to selfie mode with a 10 second timer. She positioned the phone next to her laptop and we worked together to match the angle of the phone to what I was seeing on my screen as closely as possible.

Then Tamara pressed the button on her phone to begin taking photos and I gave direction on positioning and lighting. Waiting for the countdown on the timer was a little awkward, but not awful, especially since we knew each other well. Then I would review the photos as she sent them via text.

The final result was pretty good. Tamara looked relaxed, almost joyful. I was inspired to continue.

"If I have a short break during the day, between meetings or heads down time, you can usually find me in the kitchen making another glass of tea. Earl Grey is my go-to for apick-me-up, and I like lemon ginger or peppermint to relax. I probably have over a hundred tea bags in my kitchen drawer right now, just in case." —Tamara, Somerville, Massachusetts

I reached out to a few more IDEOers and continued to refine the process. Next I shot Natalie. She’d recently (and begrudgingly) acquired an air conditioner to make working from home more comfortable. This had become a hot topic of conversation during our many calls. When I asked her to take me somewhere she’d been spending a lot of time during the pandemic, we naturally ended up in the coolest corner of the house: in front of the AC.

“As someone who self-identifies as an extreme heat lover, I have a complicated relationship with my air conditioner. Since I’ve started working from home this very hot summer, I’ve realized how much my brain needs the cool to function. Installing this window unit felt like I was giving up part of myself (the part that was stubbornly anti-AC). On the other hand, I’ve gained a lot of empathy for people who “get too hot,” something I never understood before. All of these complex thoughts about identity and connection are only made possible by the temperature control. Thanks AC!” —Natalie, Cambridge, Massachusetts

A few days later, Shavon showed me around her new apartment. We brought her dog Oliver’s bed into the frame to try to lure him into the background. We snapped a few shots when he showed up.

I moved into this apartment at the peak of a global pandemic for more space to work from home alongside my partner and our naughty Norwich Terrier. The best lighting for video calls, people watching, and leaf-peeping happens in our lounge room at the front of it. See the leaves peeking out in the corner behind me? Those are from a faux banana leaf tree that belonged to another IDEOer who has moved back in with their family. To whom much space is given, much space is requested. —Shavon, Somerville, Massachusetts

Todd also moved during the pandemic. When I dropped into his new home in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, he took me outside to his deck where he has coffee every morning. I love how the trees seem to absorb him into the picture.

“I drink my coffee here, I listen to the birds, I look up at the trees, I plan my day and set an intention.” —Todd, Wellfleet, Massachusetts

Next I "went" to Virginia to shoot my friend Favin. The first location we scouted was outside in the blazing summer heat. After sweating through a few shots that felt a little too staged (like the one on the left below), we moved inside. Favin picked a new, more comfortable spot: the couch she'd been spending time on during quarantine. We ended up with the shot on the right, which we both liked better.

“During the pandemic I’ve done a lot of reflecting on what makes me happy and content—it’s a comfy couch and my jammies.” —Favin, Arlington, VA

My colleague Greg uses his Instagram account to chronicle the records he listens to every Sunday. I asked if he might let me photograph him where the magic happens: in front of his record collection.

“Every Sunday I document what I’m playing on my turntable. Usually it’s accompanied by a plant and a beverage. I started the tradition in Tokyo, kind of like a little shrine to what’s inspiring me. I’ve been doing it pretty consistently for 6 years now!” —Greg, Brooklyn, New York

After we finished, he sent me this shot of Oscar, his three year old.

Seeing my colleagues and shooting photos again were both a relief. As far as new hobbies go, maybe this one was a bit strange, but it gave me back what I was missing: my community. Here are three things I learned by stepping outside my comfort zone and doing virtual portraits.

#1. Everything is different now, so we're all adapting

The unexpected constraints of a pandemic have revealed a completely new way of working. I no longer go on long walks to scout locations; instead I get walked around virtually. Photos are framed by leaning an iPhone up against a pile of books or a toaster, and everything shot is from a phone. And now I can time travel—I can shoot in the UK in the morning, Massachusetts in the afternoon, and California at night.

I wouldn’t have dreamed up these strategies in the past, but given the constraints, it works.

#2. These remote sessions are a collaboration between photographer and subject

In traditional photography, the person holding the camera is in control. Now that my hands are empty, who’s in charge?

I asked Alyson, a former IDEOer, if she’d take me to the beach where she surfs every morning. I had a shot in mind: Alyson from below, holding her board with the line of waves behind her.

“Since moving back to California, the ocean has created the physical and mental space for me to process everything we’re experiencing this year. She’s become my early morning sparring partner, humbling me with her sheer force and focusing my mind on quiet reflection.” —Alyson, Newport Beach, California

We nailed it. A few minutes later, a man walking by started talking to Alyson, asking her what she was doing with a tripod and two phones on the beach (understandable). We ended up taking this second shot mid-conversation. We both liked it better.

From behind my screen, I didn’t have the opportunity to adjust the angle of the board or tweak the lighting—I had very little control about what was actually happening and the portrait still came out great. Here’s how I see this remote photography experience compared to other modes:

When I shared this project with Jane Fulton Suri, IDEO's first design researcher, she told me, “You are unlocking something in both yourself and the subject—it’s a negotiated process.” I can’t help but agree.

#3. Distance can feel intimate too

Today, video calls can be work meetings, birthday parties, therapy sessions, weddings, murder mystery games, and everything in between. It’s not necessarily intimate by nature, but during a pandemic, the definition of intimacy has changed.

My dear colleague Bruno traveled to Miami to be with his family this past summer. During our portrait session, he told me he’d never lived at home with his little sister, Rafa, who’s four. The setting he chose for his photo was her room. At one point, they were both holding toys as they looked out the window. We captured a quiet, beautiful moment that may have never happened if it weren’t for the pandemic.

“I’m sleeping in my sister’s room while I’m here, surrounded by butterflies and dolls. The dresser and mirror behind me are my mom’s. We had to bring them into my sister’s room because my at-the-time-COVID-positive brother was quarantining in my mom’s room. The plants are cuttings that I brought to Miami from Boston because I was too sad to say goodbye to my plants forever, and the cuttings growing roots while I’m home for the first time long-term since high school graduation is a metaphor that tells itself.” —Bruno, Miami, Florida

I also got my family in on the gig. When I texted my mum to ask her to participate in this project, she was less than enthusiastic.

With her in northern England and me in Massachusetts, I hadn’t seen her in person since September 2019. She had been knitting up a storm—everything from cardigans to giraffes—for my daughter. I explained what I was hoping to do, and when I called, she and my dad had set everything up perfectly. I speak to my mum often, but this was the first time I involved her in a project.

“I’m making a friend for Geoffrey the Giraffe at the moment.” —Mum, Lancashire, England

This isn’t the 2020 I dreamed up; I’m sure that’s true for you too. But this experiment has re-inspired me as a photographer. I’ve come to realize that I don’t always need to be fully in control, or even physically present to get interesting, intimate results. In fact, I can be anywhere…even in my living room.

  • Tom Kershaw

    Design Lead, IDEO Cambridge
    With a background in graphic design, interaction design and photography, Tom feels most at home exploring the magic space between storytelling, user experience and technology.
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