Lee Jeffries Interview: How to Capture Hauntingly Beautiful Portraits

unique portrait photography - Lee Jeffries

Lee Jeffries’ work is making news. His haunting black & white portraits of homeless men, women, and children have been featured on Time‘s LightBox as well CNN‘s own unique portrait photography blog. This is not surprising.

His photos are powerfully intimate and, most importantly, respectful of the people and emotions behind his work.

In this interview, Lee talks about how he goes about photographing a stranger’s emotion, respecting the still photo’s artistic linage, unique portrait photography and how he got into street photography.

unique portrait photography - Capture Hauntingly Beautiful Portraits

I read that you first got into street photography after an encounter with a homeless woman in London. Could you explain why you decided to become a street photographer?

Looking back, it seems almost like an evolutionary process. I don’t recall actually making the decision, “I want to be a street photographer.” I just found myself there. Once there…the smells… the people…the stories. The emotion. Ask any serious street photographer and they will all tell ya that its those elements that motivate. I’m always at my happiest when I’m on the street.

unique portrait photography - street photographer

Many of your Homeless portraits capture either a devastating expression or a quiet longing. How do you go about capturing these intimate expressions?

My approach is entirely based on being respectful and courteous. I introduce myself, start a conversation and then see where that goes. It’s never about direction. It’s always about trying to capture something I noticed about the person way before I even introduced myself. I can walk the streets for hours in search of that instant recognition of emotion in a stranger’s eyes. You can’t teach it . . . it’s instinctive.

unique portrait photography - capturing these intimate expressions

Most of your portraits remove their subject’s environment. Why do you prefer the close up?

My portraits portray emotion. I want nothing to dilute the power of that. On a basic level I’m shooting a portrait… but looking a little deeper, what I’m really doing is taking their likeness and instilling a greater meaning. Religious iconography some have described it as. My images are not documents.

unique portrait photography - Religious iconography

Considering that your subject matter lends itself to documentary filmmaking, why did you decide on still photography? What are the artistic advantages of photography?

I have a romantic conception of art which has its roots in the nineteenth century. My approach promotes the art, awakening in the viewer a moral sense. My images are far from reportage photography, often documented in text and captions, and farthest yet from photojournalism, with the aim of covering the news. My images are timeless pieces, and the characters I portray may have existed a hundred years ago. Photography has facilitated my vision of spiritual representation as painting did for the great renaissance artists.

unique portrait photography - documentary filmmaking

Your images have a high contrast and are wonderfully dark. Could you give us a quick break down of your post-processing workflow?

I understand the need for people to ask this question. However, in my opinion, to ask entirely misses the point. My work comes with a message…a narrative that hopefully engages and absorbs. I have never and will never purport to be a Scott Kelby or the like.

unique portrait photography - wonderfully dark

Street photography is an ever popular genre. How has the pervasive camera phone tethered to social media affected it?

I’m smiling. Questions like that are for the aficionados. I’m happy just doing what I’m doing.

What would you consider the most crucial advice to any aspiring street photographer?

Do it your own way. Be bold … be different!! Sure, be influenced by what you see from others but most definitely do not attempt to imitate. Where would the satisfaction be in that? Feel and the rest will follow.

unique portrait photography - aficionados

Are there any limits to what can be captured within the frame? Where does one make the distinction between documentation and privacy?

You’ll know it. When somebody doesn’t want to be photographed they’ll tell you in no uncertain terms. Being as close as I am, I’ve been given an almost implicit permission to be there. It’s that acceptance that allows me to capture what I do. Without it the document/privacy line is a grey one.

If you were to take a portrait of yourself, how would it look? What would be your expression?

I’ve tried. Others have. Some people are natural in front of a camera, others aren’t. I’d have to say that my expression would be a tad contrived and that’s best left in the darkroom for nobody to see 🙂

(Here are links to Lee’s website and Flickr Photostream and Twitter.)

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