Khadija Benn, who has stunned many on the Guyana Photographers’ Facebook Group, around the country and around the Caribbean, with her unusual portraiture work, takes questions from the group in this, our second, Q&A article on the site.
Q Khadija, tell us about your first experiences with creating photography. How did it all start?
It was fortuitous. I cannot say that I had any particular interest in photography in the past. Basically, one old years night I tried taking pictures of fireworks and I realized I didn’t know how to take a decent picture. On the first day of 2010 I ordered a new point and shoot camera, and began to read articles on beginners’ photography.
I enjoyed the P&S for a short time, but the more I read the more I realized that the camera was not flexible enough for what I wanted to try. So I saved up for the next three months to buy my first entry-level DSLR, which I still use today. Meanwhile I practiced the basics on my P&S, and taught myself how to process images.
Anything I wanted to know, I would simply use Google. Fundamentally this is how I learned. I also spent a few hours perusing the photography section in bookstores, although I never purchased any books. My objective there was to learn how to develop my own photography style; I had become very concerned with the matter about two months in :). I didn’t find the answer in the books, but they made me appreciate the importance of consistency in my intended body of work.
Q How did you start doing self-portraits? Most people tend to point the camera AWAY from themselves.
That began with me viewing beautiful portrait work and thinking that I could probably do that too, but at the time I had no family or friends around of whom I could take pictures of, and I was too shy to ask strangers. I didn’t like taking pictures of myself, but as I continued to browse others’ photos, I stumbled on the work of some contemporary self portraitists. A new world was opened up to me; I sincerely hadn’t known that it was possible to take artistic images of the self. I then decided to try an idea I had, which resulted in my first of many SPs, Azadine.
Q Self portraits are something I don’t think I’ll ever try. Do you remember the first time you posted one online and how you felt about it? If not, how do you feel generally when posting self portraits?
I was surprised at how difficult it was for me to share Azadine. Flickr was my community of choice, which has exceptional talent. I had become so caught up in making it that I hadn’t paused to think how other photographers would receive it. Another hurdle was my disinterest in having a social media presence. It took me one week before I shed my concerns to post it.
Today I still struggle with sharing my self portraits because each is immensely personal. I put lots of thought, effort and hours into each stage of producing them, so sharing them always feels as though I’m giving away a piece of myself. It’s an unsettling feeling that I may never get over.
Q I think some of us would like the ‘magic behind the photo’ – I’m guessing tripod and remote – how do you do the pictures? Do you have someone telling you if it’s focused or not, within the frame or not?
No. It’s difficult for me to relax in front of the camera and communicate an emotion, more so with someone watching. This is why I rarely do outdoor SP shoots. I do use a tripod and remote, although lately I’ve been relying more on the self timer because I tend to use my hands in the story.
Essentially, I begin with a concept of how I want the focus, composition and lighting to be before I step in front the camera. I take a few test shots to right myself in the frame, and adjust light and angles. I then recall my vision for the picture and begin shooting. It usually takes about 15 minutes, and I prefer it at a slow pace without going back and forth between the camera.
It’s not easy; I do get frustrated if I review the images and am missing focus or frame. In some cases I took the pictures in too dim light or I wasn’t patient enough. I’ve had quite a few failed shoots because of these issues, but I just move on to the next idea whenever the desire to act on it comes.
Q Inspiration, where do you get yours?
Currently, most of my inspiration comes from objects I like coupled with whatever is happening in my life at that point in time. Secondary inspiration comes from the work of others. I don’t think artists like to admit this much, but there is nothing wrong with it. For me, browsing other artists’ work is a process of observing mood, composition, light, and other aspects that total the image; it also motivates me to act on the images I’ve had in my head. Lastly, inspiration may come from what I’ve been reading or listening to of late.
With portraits, inspiration comes from the model, which is why I refer to them as my muses. The look, personality and experiences of the muse inspire the shoot that we create together – also, there cannot be a disconnect between us. This year I decided that my portrait work would be informed by themes from nature. So everything from sand to feathers inspires me, and I love fusing the female form with Guyanese landscapes.
Q Could you show a before and after photo and talk a little about the processing you do?
My processing style tends to result in low key, strong contrast images, although sometimes I go for an ethereal feel.
Guyana Gold is significant because it’s the first self portrait where I began to find my preferred style of simplified editing and processing. For this image I essentially improved brightness and vibrancy, de-saturated the gold regions, then adjusted the colour balance for a slight blue tinge.
I do very little in the way of editing features. I prefer to keep the texture of skin rather than photoshopping it away, and I never change body proportions (e.g., a smaller waist). I don’t know how to and don’t intend to learn how. I do remove blemishes, and here I also edited away some distracting grains of sugar.
Q Has the admiration of others’ for a particular type of your photographs helped define where your photography is going, or do you still experiment with a wider range of photography than portraits?
Somewhat. Some photographers only look at pictures in their own genre, but I find this to be limiting. I admire many photographers’ work and enjoy all subjects, styles and genres of photography. I won’t do as they do, but I may get enthused to experiment with my own work. If I stick with photographing just one genre I would become bored, so I shift among documentary, nature and portraits.
Q Could you mention some photographers that you think people should study or at least, know their work?
As I am self-taught, I won’t venture to suggest whom others should be studying. In fact, I need to find some time to learn this too. However if you’re interested in contemporary self portrait work, I would suggest beginning with Brooke Shaden and the early work of Lara Jade.
Q I’m very interested in strobist photography and will be doing some work in that area soon. Do you use flashes/strobes, studio lights, softboxes, etc for some of your dramatic lighting? If you do, what’s your normal setup like? For example, your shadowlight collection; what type of lighting did you use to create those awesome photos?
I’m interested too! 🙂 But I’ve not worked with such lighting setups and doubt I would. I shoot everything in diffuse ambient light, usually natural light and taken outdoors, and I never use flash. I angle the model according to the light source. For black and white portraits, I carefully choose raw images with strong shadows and highlights, then lightly dodge and burn to pronounce the effect.
Q What is your favourite subject matter and why?
Nature abstracts award me the most pleasure. They are difficult for me to find, but no other subject proffers that level of delight as when I find a leaf or petal that is unusually composed or lit. I then enjoy the challenge of cropping it just right or testing different contrasts until I get the final image just the way I want it.
Q Can you tell us what is in your bag, as in what is the typical gear you have for your work?
I have been using three main lenses – the 18-55mm kit lens, the 50mm 1.8f, and a telephoto lens. I also recently bought an ultra wide angle lens. My favourite of the set is the 18-55mm lens. Yes I said it… I love the cheap kit lens! It’s most versatile for my subjects of choice, and it affords me the most room for cropping if need be. I don’t enjoy the 50mm very much. I find the in-camera framing too restrictive, but since I tend to shoot in low light I can’t deny that it’s important to my gear. I don’t use reflectors, flashes or any other accessories. What I wish I could do is pocket sunlight for whenever I need it! My GPS, penknife and pocket balance are usually in my camera bag too, as I am a geographer first and a photographer second! 🙂
Khadija Benn is a hobbyist photographer from Georgetown, Guyana, who has been practicing photography for about two years. She is a GIS Analyst by profession who holds a special interest in landscape architecture.
All Photographs are copyright to Khadija Benn and are not to be used or reroduced in any format without permission.
If you have any ideas for a future Q&A article, please send suggestions to QandA@GuyanaPhotographers.com.