Lens on Life: Documenting Your World Through Photography

Be Kind, Respectful, & Aware of Your Presence

Working on the first day of my assignment for CARE in the far west region of Nepal on July 28, 2010, I was asked to document their CRADLE Support Project focused on mothers and newborns. Four of us climbed up a wooden ladder to reach a new mother and her six-day old baby, tucked away in the loft of the Nagri family’s dried-clay home high in the hills of Chhatiwan (Doti District). When I saw young Dharma, age 17, sitting quietly beside her newborn swaddled snugly in layers of colorful wraps, I felt so humbled and grateful to have been invited into such an intimate space. “Namaste,” I said softly, looking into Dharma’s eyes.

Caption: Mother Dharma Nagri, age 17, admires and cradles her six-day-old son in her home where she lives with her husband and 16 family members high in the hills of Chhatiwan (Doti District) in Nepal.

© Stephanie Calabrese Roberts/CARE]

Quickly taking in her presence and the vivid colors and details of the space, I adjusted my ISO setting to accommodate for the dim setting (with just one stream of harsh light through a small window), pointed my external mount flash to fire at the wall behind me to bounce and soften the light, and chose a moderate aperture setting to let in as much light as possible while retaining some focus on the detailed background elements. I was sensitive to the fact that Dharma and her baby were seated comfortably on layers of blankets, so I positioned myself to find the right perspective.

As I began to make my first few images, I sensed that Dharma was shy and hesitant to move. The baby was sleeping, so there was little for her to do but focus on the four of us and the sounds of my clicks. Conscious of my presence and eager to minimize it, I turned on my digital audio recorder and asked my partner Jen to interview Dharma about her birth experience. I needed conversation in the space to draw the focus away from my camera. When Dharma began to answer questions in Nepali, I could see that she was beginning to feel more at ease with us, but I didn’t feel that I could accurately portray the loving emotion I knew she felt for her sleeping newborn. “Can you ask her to pick up the baby?” I asked Mukesh, my primary CARE host. At this, Dharma smiled toward her sleeping son and reached down to lift him with such tenderness. I quickly got down on the dirt floor and inched in close with my 14–24mm lens. Following her carefully, I clicked, on instinct, at the moment when her eyes met mine. It was a connection.

Eight of the Nagi family members (Dharma’s mother-in-law and seven neices and nephews) living in this home gather beside CARE Senior Field Mobilizer Induka Karki as she focused her mobile phone camera on Dharma and her newborn.
© Stephanie Calabrese Roberts/CARE]

As much as I want to blend in with my surroundings and photograph people unaware of my presence, this 22-minute experience reminds me that my presence does influence the photographs I make, and whether I like it or not, I am seen. The way in which I connect with my subject through my words, actions, expressions, and gestures will influence the photographs I make and the way in which I am able to portray my subject.

This has been an excerpt from Stephanie’s book “Lens on Life – Documenting Your World Through Photography”.

Mostly candid and spontaneous, documentary photography serves to preserve a moment in time. In Lens on Life, celebrated documentary photographer and author of the best-selling The Art of iPhoneography: A Guide to Mobile Creativity, Stephanie Calabrese Roberts, inspires you to explore, shoot, and share documentary photographs, guiding you as you define your own style. Illustrated with the author’s striking artwork and diverse insight and perspectives from seasoned photographers including Elliott Erwitt, Elizabeth Fleming, Sion Fullana, Ed Kashi, John Loengard, Beth Rooney, and Rick Smolan, this book will sharpen your artistic intuition and give you the confidence to take on personal or professional documentary assignments. Full of advice that will challenge you and strengthen your photography, Lens on Life shows you how to capture an authentic view of your world.

Text ©2012 Stephanie Calabrese Roberts. Book excerpt courtesy of Focal Press.

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