Elsa Dorfman has a poignant series of photographs. Photographs that inspire and challenge. Photographs of people who know they are dying soon.
Elsa Dorfman has been able to do something I cannot: capture in photographic medium what it means to be dying.
In understanding the technical side of my craft over the last five years, I’ve been experimenting with light and form; and in photographing people, learning how to build rapport with my subject(s). I am most particularly satisfied when I am able to capture moments, record glimpses of character, and get at the heart of things in recording milestones.
This post, then, is a reflection on how as an artist I feel unable to separate my emotions and my concern for the dignity of my subject from my making.
I can often see the finished photograph in my mind before I start a shoot. Many times the result of the shoot surprise me and I get things I didn’t expect or could not have imagined. From these, I learn more about the vicissitudes and malleability of light, about engaging with my subjects, about the location itself, and about my equipment. Sometimes the result is a happy accident and sometimes there is frustration at not being able to achieve the vision in my imagination.
I have an image of the kind of photograph I would like to make. I know the kind of light, the colour palette, the way I would like to capture the skin and face, and the personality of my subject. I can tell you some of the technical details. But what I can’t do is feel like making this photograph wouldn’t somehow interfere with the precious moments of simply being present.
You see, I feel different with a camera in my hand. I see things differently; it’s like certain aspects of my thought process are switched on and I am attentive and attuned to aperture, focal point, shadows, highlights, the lenses I would need, and where I would need to stand. My focus is as much on the end result as on my subject. And at the moment, I cannot help but feel that being is more important than doing.
I’ve taken my camera with me on my daily visits, but I haven’t even broached the subject of a portrait. I’ve thought about it, but the moment just hasn’t felt right.
I took photos on Christmas day as we all huddled in around the bed to share gifts but these are best described as snaps. The last photographs I took of my grandmother were extraordinarily bright and happy. I want to record these days, this experience. But more than this, I want to maintain her dignity.
In learning a craft and in practising art, I wonder if learning the boundaries of what you can and cannot bring yourself to do, for whatever reason, isn’t healthy? I wonder if Art isn’t also about challenging your own boundaries? But even if I were to push my boundaries further in this case, I wonder if sacrificing the dignity of my subject wouldn’t be a price too high to bear.