Portrait, Portrait of Britain

When a photograph captures someone’s soul.

From the series 'Aleko' © Rosaline Shahnavaz

As part of our new portrait competition, we're asking photographers about the allure of portraiture, how they connect with their subjects and the projects that influenced them the most.

This week we hear from London-based photographer Rosaline Shahnavaz. 

In your view, what makes a compelling portrait?

I think there are so many elements to a compelling portrait. It could be the pose, the expression, the colours, the lines, the eyes. But I think what is most important to me is when a photograph captures someone’s essence.

How do you connect with your subjects and gain their trust?

Just like most relationships, trust is something that builds with time. When I edited my book Aleko, I had all my prints laid out in chronological order on my studio floor. It was fascinating to see the difference in my relationship with Aleko. There was a clear distance between us in the first photographs from when we had met up on Clapham Common. None of the photographs are close up, and her body language is rigid.

These are so different to the later and more intimate photographs of her. I wouldn’t have been able to capture these moments if I hadn’t kept revisiting Aleko and spending time getting to know her.

What attracts you to a potential subject?

I don’t think there’s a straight forward answer to this, maybe I subconsciously feel that photographing them might reveal an answer? Many things can leads to an attraction. It might be someone’s face, their story, their attitude, a habit, the way they smile. It could even be what I don’t know [about them] – I can’t always put my finger on it.

What makes you turn to portraiture over other genres?

I’m fascinated by people. I first got into photography by documenting my friends and my then boyfriend. I was more like a fly on the wall, obsessively photographing everything as it happened. I loved how I was able to portray my subjects, but I was even more compelled by what it said about mine and their relationship.

The great thing now is that people know my work and they trust me to take a good portrait. It doesn’t necessarily make it easier, particularly when a magazine gives you one hour to get a series of ‘intimate’ portraits with a total stranger. But you do what you can to make your sitter relax and open up. It can be challenging but it’s so fulfilling when you get it right.

When was the first time you became aware of photography? 

As a child, I used to love leafing through my parents’ photo albums. I was particularly drawn to my father’s photographs of my mother that he had taken when they first met in Tehran in the 1980s. He actually passed down that SLR camera to me and that’s when I began to shoot. I couldn’t find the right battery to fit the camera, so it meant I quickly learnt about exposures and how to take my time to compose the perfect photograph through the lens.

I think this has always been important for me. Whilst many of my friends in my photography class would shoot excessively on a digital camera, I would take the time to really look at what I was photographing before firing the shutter.

What’s your favourite portrait or series that features British people? What do you think it says about Britain?

The first time I saw Diary by Corinne Day was a pivotal moment. It was probably my first photobook and though some photographs were overwhelming, the closeness of her snapshots really moved me. Despite the controversy, the influence of her work on the fashion industry and the art world is a reminder of Britain’s diversity and progressive attitude.

Find more of Rosaline’s work here.

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From the series Aleko

From the series Aleko

From the series Aleko

From the series Aleko

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Our feature on Corinne Day, from our July 1993 issue

Our feature on Corinne Day, from our July 1993 issue

 

Our feature on Corinne Day, from our July 1993 issue

Our feature on Corinne Day, from our July 1993 issue

Portrait of Britain is inviting photographers to submit images that reflect the unique heritage and diversity of our country and show the face of modern Britain.

Want millions of people nationwide to see your image? 100 winning portraits will be picked for the biggest public exhibition ever held, to be showcased on JCDecaux digital screens nationwide – enter Portrait of Britain 2017. Deadline: Monday 03 July 2017