India is a challenging and confronting place by its very nature, but from challenges come growth, which is why it’s not uncommon that people who spend time traveling in India come back somehow transformed. Just ask The Beatles or Steve Jobs. As for me, after three backpacking trips to India in my 20s, totaling a year of traveling altogether, I can say that that the experiences I had in India had a huge impact on me and my photography.
My first backpacking trip to India was over two months in the late winter of 2009 when I was 23, and I can confidently say that it was the rebirth of my photography. Although I started out as the apprentice to a wedding photographer in Washington DC in 2001, I hadn’t had a camera in years. However just before I left on this trip a dear friend gifted me a Canon G10. It was a point and shoot camera with a few manual controls and I used it to reconnect with my love of the artform, explore the country through its lens, and I even published a book of the images I created called "Thousand Words: India".
Fast forward a few years later to when I began my career as a Boston headshot photographer in 2012. Over the next two years I built a solid portfolio of acting headshots that instantly impress casting directors. I was good at creating the kind of images where I had the full attention of my subjects, where I was gazing intently into the depths of their souls and revealing a truthful essence there. This kind of headshot photography became my thing and I became well known for it.
But in 2014 I went back to India on my 29th birthday, this time for six months. It was an amazing experience, but as a photographer I got incredibly frustrated.
This time I came equipped with my Canon 60D and two lenses I had been using in my career as a professional headshot photographer, great lenses to photograph people up close and personal (my trusty Zeiss 50mm and my Canon 70-200mm), but therein lied the problem. Everything in India is big! Think of temples, elephants, mountains and bustling marketplaces! With the lenses I had I could photograph keyholes in doors with great precision but I wanted to photograph the whole building. I didn’t want to zoom in, I wanted to zoom out! I still took some great shots on that trip (and I was very happy to exhibit some of those images), but this second backpacking trip to India instilled in me a new appreciation for when, where and why I would want a wide angle lens.
So I came home and regrouped my resources. People would think I was crazy but I had to go back. There's a much longer story (that I'll tell when I write a book one day) but in so few words I went back because there was still something my soul had to learn. So within five months I broke my lease and said goodbye to my photography studio, renounced all my possessions except what I could fit into a few bags and in late September of 2015 I went back for my third trip to India, right before my 30th birthday. But this the most critical difference was that I brought a new lens, a Canon 16-35mm, an extraordinarily wide angle lens. This time I was ready for India, or at least I thought so.
I was ready in a sense. Space was now mine as an element to explore. With my new wide angle lens I no longer had to focus in on one thing, I now had the tool I needed to explore new dimensions, relationships between elements, and even how people interacted with space they were in. It was a whole new world for me, a total departure from how I was doing things before.
But on this third backpacking trip I got frustrated again, because even though I was beginning to see things differently I was still holding on to my same old approach to photographing people. I wanted to get them to look at me, I wanted them to throw wide the windows to their souls and let me peer inside. But it wasn’t that easy.
It’s not enough to have a person look at your camera, they have to trust you. This was something I already knew but in India the lesson was being thrown in my face over and over again. The people I was meeting on the street didn’t trust me. There was an awkward energy, it was guarded, they were like, who is this white girl sticking a camera in my face? A lot of times when I tried to photograph someone their hand immediately shot out for money and the whole dynamic was ruined. The energy was off. As a professional headshot photographer who enjoys photographing people because I enjoy being given access to their inner world it was incredibly frustrating because I was being locked out.
I tried a couple different things, I even tried paying people to pose for me, but it still wasn’t working. Each time I got blocked. So I adapted, and I changed the rules.
This is when I realized that I no longer had to get people to look at me to create their portrait. This is where I started observing people from a distance and incorporating their identity as an element of my image instead of the focus of it. I began experimenting, trying new things, and letting go of the old rules of headshots that I used to operate by. And it was fun. I felt a renewed sense of excitement about creating images. I was beginning to flex different creative muscles and trying to see how many different ways I could look at the same scene. It became an exercise in seeing.
But don’t get me wrong, I still got up close to people and made some incredible portraits, but I learned better ways of overcoming that awkward closed off energy. I discovered there are predominantly two ways to get great pictures of people:
The first way to get the best pictures of people is to spend time with them first. Imagine you and your family are having a BBQ in your backyard and a stranger rolls up in a car, jumps out and starts taking photos of you. You wouldn’t be comfortable, right? Same goes in a place like India. If you want people to open up to you as a photographer they have to become familiar with you first, which frankly was something I was already knew and was incorporating into the process of my headshot sessions by taking time to sit, relax and chat before we started shooting. I learned that I had to find a way to do this on the road, which often meant that I had to spend time with people without my camera in my hands before I ever lifted my lens towards them. In order to create the best portraits I had to take the time to get to know my subjects first and give them a chance to get to know me.
The second way to get better photos of people, especially when I was just passing through and didn’t have the time to spend getting to know them and vice versa, was to take responsibility for the quality of my energy before I interacted with them. The happier I was when I approached them the more receptive they were to me and my camera. When I was feeling frustrated, angry, homesick or just low for whatever reason that was the worst time to approach people for an image. When I was happy, exploring and just having fun being on an adventure in a new city (like I felt in Bundi) people were more amused by me and willing to open up, even if I just approached them on the street. Their reaction to me was predominantly based on the energy with which I encountered them.
To sum it up, here are the top 5 reasons traveling in India made me a better photographer:
It gave me ample opportunities and inspiration to practice and expand my thinking around the art of photography
It taught me to zoom out, to see the bigger picture and not get so focused on individual elements, but rather to explore how elements interact with one another to form relationships, moments and stories
It taught me that a great lens is great in a certain situation for a certain result, but if I want a different result I need to understand and equip myself with the right lens to achieve that result
It made me profoundly appreciate that there’s a very special relationship between a subject and their photographer and it involves trust. When I want to photograph people I must get past their barriers by first building a level of trust with my subjects and I can do that by spending time with them and giving them the chance to get to know me, as well as by taking responsibility for my energy when I do interact with them.
I learned that when it comes to art and photography it’s always a good idea to try different things, to experiment, to let go of the rules and not get too caught up in the way things are supposed to be. The best art happens when we let ourselves have fun and try new things.
So how will these lessons affect my career as a headshot photographer in Boston? I would say that, much like for the Beatles, the impact of my time in India has opened the floodgates of creativity and is heralding a highly productive and inspired era of my career. I will continue to offer my clients (who include actors, models, individuals and businesses who seek and value high quality photography) the strong, truthful portraits they know me for, but now I’m going to giving even more. Instead of just focusing in on a person’s face my images will now include more body shots, more of an exploration of form relative to space and dimension, more movement and energy and definitely more experimentation and creativity.
The other way my work will be changing is that I will no longer be focusing solely on headshots. Now I'm excited to take my new skills and confidence back into the realm of wedding photography to create stunning images that reveal emotionally rich moments, relationships and the spaces between people where love stories live. In addition to taking bookings for weddings in the spring/summer of 2016 I'll also be starting by photographing couples in engagement photoshoots. I'm thinking of calling this new extension of my brand Love Stories by Ericaseye. What do you think?
If you'd like to see more of my images from India check out the Dec 2015 - Jan 2016 section of my Tumblr blog here.
Erica Derrickson is an award winning headshot photographer residing in Boston, Massachusetts. Her professional headshot photography portfolio, along with articles on top headshot tips, can be viewed on her web site, http://www.ericaseye.com. As the founder of Hollywood East Actors Group, https://www.facebook.com/groups/hollywoodeastactors, Erica has been able to share her expertise with actors throughout New England, establishing herself as "Boston's headshot expert." Beyond being one of the top headshot photographers in Boston, Erica Derrickson is a professional actress, http://www.presskit.to/erica, whose recent film credits include "The Heat," with Sandra Bullock.