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Phil Douglis | all galleries >> Galleries >> Gallery Fifteen: Making travel portraits that define personality and character. > Woman at rest, Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China, 2004
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Woman at rest, Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China, 2004

Thousands of Beijing residents visit the parks and gardens surrounding the Temple of Heaven, including this woman I found relaxing in one of its many pavilions. This portrait expresses a sense of ease and comfort. She appears confident and secure in herself. She knows I am photographing her but does not look at the camera, and instead quietly jokes with her friends sitting nearby. When I want to make portraits of people I encounter on my travels, I point to them, then to my camera, and smile to let them know that I am enjoying photographing them. More often than not, people will smile back in return, indicating that it is OK to continue shooting. I will often share with them the results on the display screen of my digital camera. In most cases a connection is made, even though I canít speak to the subjects in their language. I chose this woman as a subject because I liked the way the light fell on her face and arms. I also enlisted the help of my Chinese guide, who explained to this woman that I was a serious photographer and would feel honored to make pictures of her. She is seated on a bench on a covered porch, causing late afternoon sun to illuminate her from the side rather than from the top or front. She seems to be basking in all the attention she is getting. I moved my vantage point to juxtapose the angle of her arms to the angle of one of the softly focused tree branches behind her, which makes her seem closer to nature. The field of green grass stretching behind her is fresh and open and there are no distractions upon it. This is very much a portrait of a fully relaxed, self-confident person.

Leica Digilux 2
1/60s f/2.4 at 20.5mm iso100 full exif

other sizes: small medium large original auto
Phil Douglis02-Nov-2006 17:30
Thanks, Jeff. Our photographs reflect who we are as much as they convey the character of our subjects. If you are open and friendly with your subjects, it is likely that they will reflect that openness in their response. If you are aggressive or furtive, your subjects will probably reflect suspicion. If you respect your subject, your subject will reflect that respect. I never mask my face with my camera. My flip out LCD screen allows me to shoot from waist level, allowing me to be free to make eye to eye contact with my subjects. And as I said, I always try to share the results with them -- and often send them a picture later, if they have an email address. Good luck on your own shoot.
Guest 02-Nov-2006 04:59
What a wonderful picture. And your reading about your technique is perfect timing for me. I am going to visit another country and I have limited knowledge of the language. Actions and having an open attitude as well as respect allow you to connect with your subjects. I hope to achieve similar success. Thanks Phil.
Phil Douglis08-Mar-2005 22:51
Thanks, River. This confident, relaxed person, seemed so natural looking to me. The very word natural suggests a connection with nature, which also plays a large role in this image. The tree is essential here - a study man and nature are in perfect harmony. Far from being a distraction, the tree -- as a timeless symbol of natural form -- relates beautifully to the subject herself. And yes, she loved all the attention, and greatly enjoyed seeing the picture as well.
Guest 08-Mar-2005 06:38

I am very facial experssion oriented, probably mostly because I do a lot of headshot for actor/actress. My first attention on a portrait photography is always the facial expression and in this particular photo, she had expressed what you described "relaxed and confident." She is aware of you taking photos, and her smiles shows that awareness, I guess she enjoyed an attention from a foreign photographer.

This photo is well composed, and the tree in my opinion, actually creates a more of relaxing and secured feeling.
Phil Douglis27-Feb-2005 04:09
I must disagree with you on this, Celia. To you, the tree is a distraction. To me, the relationship of this woman to nature (the grass and tree) is why I made and why I posted this picture as instruction. The limbs of the tree and limbs of the woman are in complete synch with each other in my view. I would have to agree with Jen's interpretation, which has the tree representing another human "with arms akimbo." Whereas you see tension and distraction, Jen and I are seeing harmony and linkage. This is not the first time you and I have strongly disagreed over the interpretation of a picture -- it simply underscores the fact that everyone potentially brings a different set of eyes to bear on an image. Which, in the end, is one of the strengths of expressive photography, or any art, for that matter.
Cecilia Lim07-Feb-2005 20:12
I feel very conflicted when I look at this image Phil. The expression on the woman's face is one that is undeniably relaxed and happy, yet everything else in the image seems to be working against the feeling of "ease and comfort" that you are trying to express. The tree that you've used to juxtapose the angle of her arms with is a clever idea, but it is in itself a great source of tension and distraction, creating an impact on expression that is more negative than positive, don't you think? Although the tree is in soft focus, it commands attention because it is similar in size and colour to the woman. It is competing with her to be the focal point and this takes the attention away from her. The way the tree appears smack in the middle of the image, also breaks the calm of the flat stretch of green, creating rhythm & tension that go against the intended mood of your image. It hovers next to her head disrupting the "flow" of her gaze, and that together with your rather tight crop around the woman, leave her and the image little room to breathe. Unfortunately, these visual cues are not working for me the way they are working for you - All these visual elements create uncomfortable feelings, tension and rhythms for me that do not lend to the meaning of rest, relaxation and light-heartedness.

However, by seeing how these things are not working for me has helped me understand the lesson that you are trying to teach here which is - that the subject of an image rarely work alone to express meaning but effective meaning is often the result of a combination of every visual element in the image. And this is just as important in making expressive portraits, which should be more than just a description of a person's appearance.
Phil Douglis04-Dec-2004 20:14
Thanks, Jen, for focusing on the relationships created by the arms in this picture. I think they show us how closely man and nature echo each other. A relaxed tree, as you say almost human in itself, leans slightly in a relaxed position repeating the woman's position, as the glow of nature's light to bring out her sense of rest, relaxation, and confidence.
Jennifer Zhou04-Dec-2004 14:35
Phil, I see how the hands(arms) play a important part in this portrait. The "confident and secure in herself" were expressed largely by the way she placed her arms.

And as you said the tree in the background makes an interest point too. It is as if the tree is another human standing with arms akimbo in the distance. I think two sets of the arms made this picture! Very interesting shot!

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