Do You Like Your Image? Portrait Photographer Q&A

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CREDIT: Marcus Kern

Do you like your image? This is the question photographer Marcus Kern asks when presenting a portrait to its subject. If the person likes the image they can keep it, free of charge, but if they do not, then Kern holds onto it. Unlikeness is a collaborative photography project taking place in outdoor locations around East London.

Why do people un-tag their Facebook photos? Young people might because the photos are ‘incriminating’ and they have their parents on Facebook. But for others who un-tag might it be because ‘we have been conditioned to only accept a likeness of our mental self-image’? When I go on Facebook after a night out and see myself staring back, half-blinking and gormless, I refuse to believe that that is what I normally look like (though it probably is), and promptly un-tag.

The question of why we often reject a clear likeness of ourselves lies at the heart of an intriguing photo project, Unlikeness, by Marcus Kern. In makeshift locations around East London Kern has people sit for portrait photos. He takes a few then chooses one and prints it immediately on a mobile printer. If the sitter likes the photo they can keep it, free of charge, but if they do not then Kern holds onto it.

By simply giving the photograph to the subject Kern challenges how much ownership we grant the photographer taking the image. On his website he asks ‘How come that the person/object ‘captured’ in the image either has no rights or pays handsomely to regain partial ownership of the created likeness?’

We caught up with Marcus Kern to hear about the inspirations behind the Unlikeness project, the reasons people give for not liking their portraits, and whether he ever un-tags his Facebook photos.

Could you tell us a little about yourself?

I grew up in Germany, now live in London and work in my ‘day job’ as a technical director for a mobile marketing company. I learned photography when I was 13, a passion I maintained all through my University (I studied Physics), but I never formally trained or worked as a photographer – something I’d like to change sometime soon. I enjoy photographing people; I like the human interaction around taking photographs. I had the idea for the Unlikeness project in December 2009. The idea didn’t let me go and drove me all the way to my first Unlikeness session in July 2010.

CREDIT: Marcus Kern. An unliked portrait.

What inspired the Unlikeness project?

I wanted to create an environment where photographer and sitter build a relationship of giving to each other. Unlikeness is a collaborative photography project about choice and ownership, taking and giving, power and value. The resulting portrait photographs are predicated on the relationship between photographer, sitter and self-image.

Photographically August Sander’s work in the 1920s inspires me. But the inspiration to keep taking photographs comes out of the project itself. Constantly meeting new people, hearing their stories, sharing mine and following up months later is the biggest inspiration for it all. I photograph black and white to bring out the person rather then the colours.

Was there a particular experience that made you feel strongly about how much ownership the photographer has compared to how little the person captured has?

The project idea came to me when I watched the Contacts series by William Klein on DVD in 2009. I was intrigued by the concept of street photography, where life can throw a million challenges and opportunities at you and at the same time I was put off by the mostly powerless position of the subjects in these photographs.

Looking at Bruce Gilden’s work (which does yield incredible images) I can’t help but feel that the subjects should have a say in the capturing of their likeness. Does the end justify the means? Are the people in the frame giving their selves fully?

The fact that the person captured has the final say about the future of the image is absolutely key to the Unlikeness project.

CREDIT: Marcus Kern. Another unliked portrait.

When you shoot a portrait are you trying to capture the sitter in a way you hope they will like, or do you have a more neutral attitude?

I take and print the photograph and the sitter decides what will happen with it. In a way we both want to keep a good portrait but the relationship, the rapport is the most important ingredient.

I always want to get really into the gaze of the sitter. Often that means holding the conversation throughout the shoot, beyond the conditioned photo-face many of us have. The photo-face is often a symptom of self-consciousness, of putting on a ‘culturally learned’ image of ourselves.

So I’m trying to capture the sitter in an unselfconscious way and yes I do hope they will like it, but they don’t always do. Sometimes it takes a while for them to make up their mind if they like it, but mostly their response to like or unlike is instant.

CREDIT: Unlikeness Project. On location.

Are there common reasons people give for not liking their photo?

I ask only rarely for their reason and only sometimes people volunteer. Often the portrait works out different to their expectation and their mental self-image. Some people may feel certain facial features should be less exposed.

The Unlikeness photos are raw. There’s no post-op photoshopping, no gentle filter to help. The image goes straight to print. I think if people had to pay for the experience, then maybe I would hear more reasons for not liking their photo.

CREDIT: Unlikeness Project. A liked portrait on the fridge, bottom right.

Why is it important to you to see where the liked photos end up, their ‘liked homes’?

I will eventually exhibit the unliked portraits and alongside I would like to represent some of those that were liked. Again voluntarily, I’m asking the sitters to email me an image once their portrait has found a home somewhere.

Those ‘liked homes’ appear always in colour and reflect a magnificent variety in the way we live our lives and deal with our own likeness. Seeing that side is an important part of the work.

Having photographs of ourselves as prints is also less and less common as nowadays we view them mostly on our phones or Flickr and Facebook. There’s a massive inflation of images going on, something Image Source is probably benefiting from, and as a result we’re rarely printing them anymore. Where’s your shoebox of prints of yourself as time ages you? Have you still got one?

Do you ever un-tag your Facebook photos?

Interesting question. Of course I un-tag myself from images. I’m just like everyone else; I like and unlike photos of myself. The reasons I do though are more often related to the context of my appearance in it rather then the way I look. The thing is Facebook friend-tagging started off without consent. Not many people know that you can switch this off.

To learn more about the project visit the Unlikeness website.

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