For most people, having a portrait taken is fundamentally uncomfortable. The camera lens is a big unblinking eye staring at you. If with this portrait you are opening yourself up to the world, to show something that you’ve likely hidden or been tortured by for years, the process might be excruciating. The challenge here is to find an emotional place of comfort where a telling, compelling image can be made. That was often difficult for both parties. It often took several conversations for the relationship to be mature enough to move forward on making photographs. A few times, multiple sessions were needed to really capture the appropriate image. Sometimes that meant photographing in many locations on the same day, while building mutual understanding and trust between subject and photographer (Meta Mendenhall, David Fisher). Other times the final portrait was the result of days or months passing between sessions (Judy Jessen, S.S.).
Some of our participants needed anonymity for their safety. Anonymity in journalism is not taken lightly. For this project we wanted both to ensure our subjects’ protection from retaliation or shaming, but also to restore agency to them in choosing how much to reveal. This presented photographic challenges. As often as possible, we tried to make the photos feature light, as opposed to using shadow to obscure. Before the shoot, we discussed with our participants the various techniques, such as shooting in silhouette, from a distance, or close up on parts of the body. In most cases the final image was determined in conversation with the subject about how much of their identity could be safely revealed.
In the end, we grew to have the greatest respect for the strength of the people who allowed us to work with them to make this collection of portraits. So many of the participants experienced things that would make most people crumble under the weight — these people are facing the darkness and turning it to light.