"As a photographer, I think it is incredibly important to take the time to really hear your subject and have a vested interest in who they are so you can do their story justice."
London, England – We can say that the primary objective of a portrait photographer is to create photographs that speak to the viewer beyond the image. In 1839, Robert Cornelius made the first-ever portrait of a human being. It was also the first photographic self-portrait. Since then, countless photographers have entered the field with the goal to capture their human subjects at their most natural. Throughout generations, there have been a number of photographers who stand out from the rest due to their ability to capture in their photography something very difficult to achieve in still imagery: the soul and essence of the human in front of their lens. Professional photographer Chris Parkes is part of this list. We spoke with Chris about his work in photography, his trajectory, and the importance of preserving the human essence in his work.
– Chris, when did the art of photography first caught your attention?
In my mid-teens, my godmother gave me a subscription to National Geographic. I’d spend hours in my room poring over the articles and images, wondering how they had been created. At the time, I worked in a bookstore on the weekends and holidays and had access to a huge body of photography books which introduced me to classic and modern photographers covering a huge range of subjects. This allowed me to learn about the world, past, and present. Seeing through all these different points of view was a real privilege.
– How did you begin your professional trajectory?
Although I loved photography, books, and the thought of being a photographer, I had little idea of how to go about it. It was almost by accident that I found out my school was running an A-Level in Photography. I joined in the second year, and achieved an unremarkable C! However, it was enough to kickstart the idea that I could actually study photography and start learning how to use a camera.
From there, I studied for a year at the Plymouth College of Art and Design, where I was really able to get my hands wet and experience the smells and textures of darkroom work. I was going to continue for the Higher National Diploma, but a colleague at the bookstore encouraged me to apply to be a cruise ship photographer. Stuck in town while most of my friends were overseas on gap year adventures, plus offering me the chance to earn, learn, and travel, I went for it. A month later, I was in Miami, and a few days later, I was in Italy!
At the time, I lacked the ballsy confidence it takes to approach complete strangers and charm them into taking their photo. With time and practice, my confidence grew personally and technically, which was helped by shooting such huge volumes of images. On the first day alone, the team would go through about 1000 rolls of film. By the end of my first contract, I could shoot a manual FM2 while reloading the second one over my free arm. I also got to travel all over the world for almost four more years before I had enough.
I came to London in 2002, and during that time I wore many hats! Most notably, I was a family photographer where I got my feet wet in digital photography, and then as a Forensic Imaging Specialist. I learned a lot about photography and myself, but neither of those roles was a great fit, so in 2008, I went freelance.
I started out by grabbing every opportunity that came my way, slowly growing my reputation and becoming, for all intent, successful. I got to travel again and meet great people. I had the chance to be with them documenting important moments in their lives, and forging professional and personal relationships which I’ve maintained to this day.
However, through all this, there was a nagging sense that I wasn’t taking part in the type of photography that had drawn me into my work in the first place. Telling stories about people and places that might be otherwise unseen, to shine a light where people might not know or want to look. That all changed in 2016 when I worked with Street Child in Sierra Leone and then Nepal. The people and stories I encountered there wholly altered my perspective. It was a real “what am I doing with my work?” moment. I realized I needed to make a change in what I was shooting and whom I was working for.
– When discussing your photography, what do you aim to express, either with your work or with your subject?
The idea is to force people to really look, rather than just glance. I want them to question who the person is and be drawn into getting to know them better. A lot of that is in the lighting, creating a look that is hyper-real, full of vibrant colors and contrast, by balancing natural and strobe lighting. I tend to shoot on either very wide or longer lenses as they create a more dramatic perspective than what we see with the human eye (which tends to sit around the 35-50mm mark). I also choose backgrounds that will inform the audience about that person, where they live, what they do for a living, and how they may be feeling.
– Touching further on the reasons behind your work, what motivates you politically or intellectually to continue taking photographs, and what is most important to you when photographing a subject?
I think there is a continued need to tell people’s stories, especially now that the cycle speed of news and information in the age of social media is on an ever-increasing upward trajectory. There is a sense that tragedy can become part of the noise, which is dangerous. There are real humans often with little agency in the events that they are vulnerable to. Making images that can help keep them in mind – so they do not become forgotten and fade away – feels imperative. I want my subjects to feel respected and safe; that it’s OK for them to present themselves honestly. As a photographer, I think it is incredibly important to take the time to really hear your subject and have a vested interest in who they are so you can do their story justice.
– Can you think of an artist or photographer that has been an influence on you and your work?
Tony Scott. He’s a film director, but when I watched his films, I was like, ‘that’s how I want people to look, that is how I want the world to feel: fast, huge, beautifully detailed, and composed frames full of color and relentless energy.’ I also think Don McCullin’s work was seminal in my idea of what photography could do. His work was drawn from some of the worst conflicts of the 20th century, but in every image, he managed to keep his subject’s dignity and humanity intact; even in the face of horror. This made his images even more haunting.
There is also Leibovitz. Her portraiture is almost conceptual, but somehow, the humanity of that person is sacred in her depictions of people. The settings and styling always feel like a set of some kind, but the person always feels real.
"I think there is a continued need to tell people's stories. There are real humans often with little agency in the events that they are vulnerable to. Making images that can help keep them in mind - so they do not become forgotten and fade away - feels imperative."
– You have worked all over the world in some spectacular settings. How long does it take you to plan and complete one of your photoshoots?
It’s contextual. In the spur of the moment, you may not be able to keep someone from their daily work for too long, so you have to respect the time they give you and be efficient. Sometimes, you have only a few minutes! That’s when you have to use your technical knowledge all at once, alongside your people skills. However, there are other more formal situations, when you may have to do interviews, with a clear brief, and those can take a good week or two to plan, shoot, interview, transcribe, edit and deliver.
– Speaking of the technical aspects of photography and how you create your art, is there a particular camera or brands you prefer?
When I read that Don McCullin’s Nikon F camera took a bullet for him, it permanently romanticized the brand for me. Nikon was also the brand of choice for cruise ship photo gigs at the time. They were tough but beautifully built. I also loved the philosophy of the F mount, and that whatever lenses I bought would retain their relevance. I think Nikon always has had this connection with the people I looked up to – being tough and lasting – and that has held its appeal to the present day for me.
Strobe-wise, I love Profoto. Being able to bring that power, portability, consistency of light, and ease of use on location is invaluable.
– What do you think are the challenges that photographers continue to face today or new difficulties that surfaced with the changing times?
The world has become flooded with images in a way it wasn’t before. There is just so much of it you wonder how you will ever make any difference or if it matters. You start to wonder where you fit in or if there is a place for your stories at all. There is also much more homogeneity than there was before – more people taking images means more copying (which is how we all learn) – so everything popular becomes widely imitated, and it all starts to look the same.
Online popularity has also become a strange sort of rating game, and it’s hard to keep your center of gravity from being pulled into it, losing your sense of what your work is doing or meant to do, rather than how popular it is. You have to discipline your anxieties and insecurities while accepting that they are real, but not let them invalidate the worth of what you do. What helps is to know your value, why you are doing it, be realistic about the rewards, and then commit to the course.
Also, since the advent of digital photography and the internet, traditional ideas about photography, the value of images, and those who make them have changed radically and continue to do so. That also goes for the technology available to tell stories. That speed is difficult to keep pace with, as it demands you to continually adapt without losing sight of your core.
"Photography is a process of adding layers of knowledge over time, creatively and technically. If you want your photography to do more, be patient."
– What is the best advice you have received in your career as an artist, and what is your own advice for those wishing to enter the field of photography?
I was advised to decide what kind of photographer I wanted to be, to be honest, and to stop trying to be all things for all people. With that, my advice for others is to be patient. Photography is a process of adding layers of knowledge over time, creatively and technically. If you want your photography to do more, be patient again. Changing people’s perceptions isn’t an explosion. It’s a process of erosion. We are all trying to slowly alter the course of the world with each story told. You have to see yourself as a tiny but necessary cog that’s helping drive a much bigger engine. You can’t BE the engine. You can only be one of the cogs, but every cog is needed.
– How would you like for you and your work to be remembered?
I’m not sure our work is even going to be remembered in the way we think of now. The icons we had growing up were all pre-digital. The fandoms, cults, and works that consecrate them may not even be the same when my time comes to pass. However, when people do see my work, I hope they want to know the people in them and broaden and deepen their understanding of the world and themselves in that process.” – GM