When we ask someone how they are, stated the philosopher and feel-good internet meme Alan Watts, we are really only asking one set of cognitive functions to report on their experiences to another set, and by doing so, are reducing the idea of the individual to his/her memory and emotions. ‘How are you’ speaks nothing of the regularity of a heartbeat, the pain in a knee, or the brittleness of a fingernail, or the millions of other aspects of ourselves which make up who we are.
So should a portrait of someone be exclusively of the surface features of an expression? If we are far more than the memories we express, could not a portrait also represent something other, and be just as true to an individual?
When I think about what generally occurs during a photographic portrait being made, certain ideas are constant. There is what the photographer brings, which include camera, type of lens, photographic knowledge, and an idea of where the photograph will take place. The person being photographed brings things too, their expression, attire and body language. In short, a unilateral process takes place with a greater emphasis on the role of the photographer, who is the more powerful of the two, being the one who decides the location, lighting, and, most importantly when to expose the frame.
If a portrait could be reduced to the above points, and if, as Alan Watts says, we are far more than what we say we are, then can a portrait also be something other, perhaps an images of people’s ideas? During my day job teaching, I became really interested in how different students make notes. The colours they use. The spacing between lines. The use of doodles to recall vocabulary. These insights are no more or less true representatives of who my students are, so I call them portraits, too.