NO CHEESE, PLEASE

Add power to your portraits by ditching the grin.

Traditional photojournalism shies away from having subjects look directly at the camera and smiling, since a photo story should seem as if the photographer were an invisible witness to reality. Yet despite that convention, Boston-based photographer Porter Gifford finds that his visual narratives grow stronger when he adds such camera-aware environmental portraits to the story. «It’s a way for viewers to pause and connect more personally with the subject,» Gifford says. «But, a photograph of someone not smiling is traditionally seen as a more serious.»

The enigmatic moment in his photo above came from a personal project Gifford shot in 2011. He spent three days documenting the Farm School in Athol, MA, where weeklong summer camps are held to introduce farming to school groups. Gifford wanted to capture «kids just being kids,» so he kept an eye out for situations where the students were left to their own devices to explore.

On this day, a group was working in a large garden. One boy began fooling around with a bundle of vines, making a ball and tossing it in the air. Recognizing the possibility of something visual happening, Gifford closed in. Suddenly, the boy adorned himself with the vines, and the photographer was ready. «Hey, Ben, can you look at me for a second?» he asked gently. Gifford quickly composed and shot five frames with his Canon EOS 5D Mark II and 50mm f/1.2L EF lens. His exposure, in aperture-priority, was 1/2500 sec at f/2.2, ISO 200.

The boy, who had been in his own world a moment before, looked expressionlessly at Gifford as if awaiting further instructions, and receiving none went back to business. Gifford had weighed the value of asking him to smile and decided against it: He felt the mood of a smile would clash with the unusual graphic quality of the vines around the eyes and the chiaroscuro effect of the overcast sky on the boy’s face.

«I didn’t tell him to put the vines on his head—only a kid would think to do that,» Gifford says. «He literally entangled himself in the environment, and that reflects much of what I wanted to explore in this story— the environment, kids, learning, and fun.» It’s hard not to smile at something like that.

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