Portraits aren’t just about taking photos of people and making them look good; it’s about capturing their essence, their being, their character in a single frame. To do so takes a certain level of skill, not only technically, but also in terms of making sincere human connections.
The next photographer in the spotlight has absolutely no problems with either. Kieron Wise not only takes superbly executed portraits, but he takes portraits that effortlessly display his subjects’ character as well. It’s literally like getting a glimpse of who they truly are. Being once a finalist and a winner in Shoot the Face affirms this about Kieron.
We recently had an interview with him to hear his approach on portraiture and photography in general , get to know him and his relationship with photography better, and check on what he’s been up to these days.
Tell us a little something about yourself. It could be your background or your favourite colour, anything you like ☺
I was born in Germany to an Irish mother and an English father. I spent a lot of my childhood moving around and it left me with an innate interest in many things. As a result I’ve tried my hand at just about everything from being a cinema projectionist, a veterinary assistant, a soldier, a travel agent, an editor, a marketing manager, a gardener, a tech support manager, a techno DJ, and now I’m a teacher. I get bored doing the same thing for too long and am always looking to expand my horizons. I think photography has been the only thing that has been a constant throughout this journey.
How did photography start for you? Was it something you just discovered when you moved to Cornwall or has it been a lifelong interest?
I’ve always had an interest. My mother used to have an old Minolta back in the 70s and I was always fascinated by it. I did photography at school back in the days of the dark room. I don’t remember much about school but I do remember being in a darkened room, with a whiff of chemicals and watching images appear in a tray as if by magic. It wasn’t until around 1984 when I was in the South Atlantic and had the chance to go to a remote island to view some wildlife that it all clicked (no pun intended). Someone showed me some photos that they had taken and I was immediately struck by the composition. I wasn’t really aware of composition at the time but it was as if someone switched a light on in my head. I went to the island and used the images as a reference point in my mind to think about composition…I then discovered I had a natural eye for it. Although it was 30 years ago, I can remember that moment as if it was yesterday. It was pure magic. I used to do a lot of travel photography and had a lot of friends who loved my work and were extremely encouraging. I stopped taking photos for a few years; my camera had broken and I just sort of drifted away from photography. Then one morning the postman arrived with a package. I opened it and inside was a brand new Canon EOS 400D with a message from my great friend Mike to start taking photos again. I couldn’t believe that someone would do this and it gave me the confidence to get going again. Although I have upgraded to a 5d Mark ii I still have that camera and will probably never get rid of it.
Your winning photo on Shoot the Face is a very captivating portrait. Can you tell us more about what took place behind the scenes, and how the photo came about?
Sure. I didn’t know him at the time but saw him and another chap sat on a bench having a beer as I was out and about. They looked very friendly and I went over and engaged them in conversation with the idea of taking their photographs. I had my camera out and one of them mentioned that he liked photography, which immediately gave me a way in. I chatted with them briefly and then told them that they both had amazing faces and would they mind if I photographed them. They were fine with it. I had just purchased a new 50mm lens and wasn’t quite au fait with the depth of field on it so messed up the photos I took. I only realised this when I went around the corner and checked. I immediately went back and showed them. We had a laugh about it and I took some more shots. The same thing happened so I ended up going back three times. Each time we had a good laugh and they were extremely accommodating. By the third time we were all so relaxed that I got the shots that I wanted. I entered them both into the competition and one was a finalist one month and the next month I won with the other. It felt like a good morning’s work.
Who is the man in your photo? Can you tell us something more about him? What to you made him so photogenic?
His name is Peter. I don’t know too much about him but I’ve heard that he’s a local figure and is quite well known in Falmouth. In fact every time I’ve shown local people the photo they’ve immediately recognised him and know his name. He seemed like the type of chap who had suffered some hardships in his life and I was captivated by his character. Although he’d clearly suffered, he had a very gentle and warm nature; when he spoke, he spoke directly from the heart and I was immediately drawn to him. It’s funny because there was the other chap on the bench too who had a great face but it was with Peter that I felt some sort of connection. It was quite strange. I loved his glasses and the fact that they were chipped and thick with dirt but were quite scholarly. Despite the dirt and cracks, he had these bright eyes that were incredibly defiant and proud. To this day, I still look at the photo, wonder how he’s doing and hope that he’s OK.
What’s your photographic process? Do you plan out subjects beforehand or just take a walk and shoot away?
I’ve only every taken a few portraits of people in the street. It’s something I like to do every now and then when I’m in a particular mood – I know when I’m in that mood and if I’m not feeling like that I don’t go. I’ve done it three or four times in the last few years and every time the results have been great so it’s a good formula for me. I don’t plan. If there’s someone with a great face I’ll walk straight over and engage them. Some photographers say that you need to be around your subject for a while to take good portraits but I’m not in that camp. The ephemeral connection between strangers is different to the connection between friends and it’s this that I’m after. If I feel something immediately I will go straight in and ask and shoot away. I’m then hoping for a connection which I usually get by chatting as I’m shooting. If there is no connection there is usually no shot. I never shoot in burst. I’ll wait and chat and wait some more and then when I feel the connection I’ll take the shot. Sometimes this takes a while but other times it’s quite immediate. I’m naturally quite chatty so can usually find something to waffle on about until the moment happens.
Your photos online show a great variety between portraits and landscapes. Is there a genre that you prefer?
Despite the fact that I spend most of my time doing landscapes, I’m aware that this is only because of the environment that I’m in. If was in New York I would probably do street photography and if I was in Asia I’d probably do travel photography. So I’m pretty much a product of my environment. However, I’m definitely happiest with the portraits I’ve taken. I think it must be something to do with the innate need for human connection. I just wish I was in that particular zone a bit more and I’d be doing much more of it. However, if there is one genre that I prefer above all it’s documentary and I’ll hopefully be working on a few of these projects over the coming year. One in India documenting a remote tribe and one closer to home documenting the inshore fishermen that live in Cornwall.
How does your shooting process change between genres?
That’s a great question because the differences are huge. With street portrait work you need to have the camera set up before you go out but be ready to to change settings very quickly. I tend to use a 50mm lens and keep it in aperture priority mode. I experimented with a few settings but found that an aperture of about 5.6 is best for me. As I keep the focal point central but the eyes are not usually central, this ensures that if I focus on the nose, the eyes will be still be in focus. It’s too much of risk (for me) to have an extremely large aperture, focus on the eyes and then move the camera to reframe. The smallest movement at a short distance (I usually photograph from as close in as possible) will throw the eyes out of focus. As I’m usually talking, moving around and waving my arms I ensure I have a higher ISO to increase the shutter speed – depending on the light obviously. In landscape things are completely different. I usually set the camera up beforehand (aperture in the middle range for the best quality), native ISO and a shutter release cable. The pace of landscape photography is much slower as things are obviously not moving and it’s essential to be patient, calm and observant before taking a shot. Doing landscapes I really get into the zone (or the flow as it’s known) and find it very meditative. Portrait work is the opposite as you’re dealing with someone else and have to take them into consideration.
What’s your favourite photograph that you took? Can you tell us the story behind that photograph and why it’s so special to you.
I’m not sure I have a favourite but the one that I presently really like is the one that’s on my website of the fishermen of Boat Cove near Pendeen in Cornwall.
I slept next to the beach in my van in the morning hoping to get a shot of the sunrise on the north coast of Cornwall. There’s a point in the summer when both the sunset and sunrise are visible from the same spots on the north coast and quite often sea fog will form on the hills and cascade down into the sea. I went down to the beach about 5.00 in the morning as the sun was rising. At first I was a bit disappointed because it was quite cloudy so I just hung around and waited taking photos of the beach. Then two things happened that changed everything. Firstly some fishermen arrived and started hauling their boats from the beach into the sea. Then the sun started to poke through the clouds. It all looked very mystical and quite biblical. I wanted to get a landscape shot and was hoping that the fishermen would move on quite quickly as they were taking quite a time to haul the boats out. Then it suddenly dawned on me that they should be in the shot. I waited for them to launch but forgot I had it set up for landscape; I had quite a slow shutter speed as it was on a tripod so quickly had to change settings as the fishermen were bobbing about and were blurred. I thought I’d missed the shot but then by sheer luck, one of the boat’s engines broke down and they were left bobbing about in front of me trying to fix it as the sun appeared through the clouds. The break down gave the chance to sort the settings out, recompose and take the shot. The reason it is so special to me is firstly that’s it’s a beautiful place and I had just discovered it the previous evening. Secondly, it ticks all my three favourite genre boxes – landscape, portrait and documentary. Finally, and probably most importantly, it gave me the idea to document these, and other onshore fishermen and publish a book about their lives. That one shot is hopefully going to take my photography in a completely different direction so it’s very special to me.
If there were absolutely no limits, what’s your dream photo shoot/who’s your dream subject, and why?
I would love to get on a plane and go and photograph old people in as many countries as possible. I’d then like them to tell their story and put it all together in a book. I love writing, story telling and photography and this is a dream marriage for me. So many old folk take their stories to the grave and I believe that they should all be given a chance to tell them. Imagine the richness of the archive that would be bequeathed to the world. In the absence of that kind of money, I’m planning a trip to the Faroe Islands next summer. It looks quite a magical place and I’m already dreaming about it.
What are your biggest learnings as a photographer? Do these lessons affect your life beyond photography?
That life is constantly full of surprises. I went through a stage of having to drag myself out to take photos because I often thought that I wouldn’t find anything but nowadays I’ve learned that if you just get out, things will happen. Life’s like that – no two days are the same. No locations are ever the same. They constantly change and evolve. I read something the other day that said ‘life has no remote, you need to get up and change it yourself.’ I think that pretty much sums photography up too. No matter what the weather is like or the mood you are in, if you get out, things will happen.
How has winning Shoot the Face affected you positively?
Artists, by nature, spend a huge amount of time doubting their talents. Despite being told by friends and family that they are fantastic, there still exists that element of doubt. I guess it’s what drives artists and drives creativity and I believe that if doubt is harnessed positively it can be a force for good. But there comes a point when you need more than your friends and family telling you that you are great. You need recognition by other artists. I do of course have artist friends who feed my insecurities and I appreciate them for this, but winning the Shoot The Face competition changed things for me. I entered one image, which was a finalist, and the boost it gave my confidence was huge. Then to wake up a month or so later and be told that you’ve actually won the competition against some incredible photographers (many of whom are professional) changes things completely. To do this after only even taking a couple of portraits was unbelievable. I’ve since decided to set up a business teaching photography – I’m already a school teacher which I absolutely love, but to have the chance to combine photography and teaching is a dream come true. Winning an international competition absolutely gave me the confidence to do this. That’s not to take anything away from my friends and family who have been incredibly supportive over the years – and I really can’t stress enough how much I need to put that on the record because without them I would never have entered the competition in the first place.
Anything you’d like to add?
I have a new website.
Interview by Julia Escano – Shoot The Frame
Kieron Wise: kieronwisephotography.smugmug.com