Portrait, Portrait of Britain

On the trust between a photographer and their subject.

© Samuel Bradley

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

In this feature, we hear from London-based photographer Samuel Bradley. 

In your view, what makes a compelling portrait?

It changes all the time for me. Right now I’m very interested in portraiture which feels a little strange, slightly off-kilter. Like a sideways glance or an awkward hand position. I quite like the idea of there being an obvious tension, as opposed to the traditional approach of trying to make someone relax.

What attracts you to a potential subject?

It’s never one thing, although I think a lot of photographers (including myself) are drawn to ‘imperfections’ like freckles or braces or bushy brows, etc. I don’t think those things are really imperfections at all because that implies that a face is perfect without them. I’ve found that over time I can tell more and more easily who I want to shoot, and even more so who I don’t want to shoot.

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

To be honest that doesn’t always happen, but it also doesn’t always make a big difference. I’ve been photographing a lot of teenagers lately and I really don’t think they trust me at all. People trust photographers very little, and they trust cameras even less. Usually I try and connect with subjects between shots and explain to them what I’m trying to do. If you involve people in your ideas I think they feel like you respect them more. I remember I was shooting this girl who must have been about ten or eleven years old, back in February, outside in a swimming costume. She was totally freezing but we spoke about what kind of picture I wanted and she worked with me to make it happen. She was a trooper.

When was the first time you became aware of photography?

There was a big punk scene in my home town when I was growing up, and there always used to be the same few guys down at my local venue shooting the bands. The owner was one of them; he shot loads of black and white 35mm at every show. Super gritty, direct flash, 17mm lens. I think seeing him working exposed me to photography as an actual thing that people did. Before that I’m not sure I connected any images I saw with people making them.

What’s your favourite portrait/series of a British person/people? What do you think it says about the country?

I don’t know if I have a favourite, but Paul Graham’s ‘A1 The Great North Road’ always sticks in my head. I was introduced to his work at university and that project just felt so much like something I wanted to make. I really connected with it. It’s not all portraits, but it is totally a portrait of that road, if not Britain as a whole. There’s something so crazily nostalgic about it but at the same time it feels really current because service stations and driving in the UK haven’t changed all that much. They’re just more modern and comfortable – people’s cars and the buildings. That whole ritual of pulling off the motorway, parking up, getting out and having a stretch, then you head into the services.

If it’s a big one, you join crowds all doing the same thing. All the guys line up for the urinals and the women’s queue is always way bigger, and there’s always some guy on a fruit machine and it’s like 9am and you’re wondering what his deal is. Everybody gets their junk food and sometimes they eat it on those crappy wooden benches outside and have a smoke. I drove down to Devon recently and had to stop at a Little Chef to use the toilet and I don’t think I’ve felt a stronger sense of national identity, ever.

See more of Samuel’s work here.

Boy

Boy in Sauna

Girl in Sauna

Footballer

Dominic

Luke

Life Guard


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