Capture the captivating: Meet the lovers of portraiture photography

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A captivating portrait captures the rich tapestry of human experiences, emotions, and perspectives. It tells a story that lingers long after the shutter has closed.

In the hands of a skilled photographer, it transcends the passing trends of our fast-paced world, leaving a lasting impression on the observer.

Beyond the surface: Telling a layered story of people, culture, and community

A recent portrait of First Nations leader Cindy Rostron, titled “Bangardidjan”, is an example of the power of a portrait to tell a layered story.

Captured by Renae Saxby with her Canon EOS R5 using the RF 35mm f/1.8 Macro IS STM lens, the unplanned, documentary-style portrait depicts Cindy — a proud Kune, Rembarrnga, Dalabon woman of the Bonongku and Wurrbban clans — sitting in her family muddikkang (car) in remote Central Arnhem Land, with a buffalo skull painted by her father strapped to the roof.

Cindy's essence, personal values, and connection to her family, community, and culture exude from the portrait.

Image: Renae Saxby

Renae says her approach to photography has been influenced by the work of the legendary Annie Leibovitz, who immortalised Whoopi Goldberg in a bathtub, arms and legs playfully dangling. 

In her teenage years, Renae gazed at that iconic photograph. It sparked a desire to share the truth of people’s character through portraits, and capture the essence of who they are. She marvelled at Annie’s ability to create a fun and safe space to allow Whoopi’s true self to shine through.

“I remember thinking ‘wow’, that’s who she really is!” Renae says. “I work with a diverse range of people, including many famous people and understand what Annie must have understood when she was taking that photo.

We all just want to feel connected, respected, safe and seen no matter who we are. You can’t photograph the essence of someone unless you care enough to actually create space for it, witness it and hold it. That's how you get that shot.”

In her journey to share the essence of people from different places, Renae has worked globally. It was across ongoing community led projects with Mimal Land Management in Bulman, a small Aboriginal community in South Central Arnhem Land, where she met Robert Redford, a beloved First Nations Elder.

Known for his infectious laughter and captivating stories, Renae's portrait shows him lost in introspection, his gaze piercing through her lens, revealing a side to him that few have seen. The audience is left wondering what thoughts moved through his mind in that moment.

Image: Renae Saxby

Harnessing intuition to capture honest moments

Similar to Renae, Stuart Miller’s personal approach to portraiture is guided by intuition.

Inspired by street photographers and their ability to capture unfiltered emotions, Stuart has an eye for mixing natural light with his location flash lighting to craft a scene. With his Canon EOS 5D Mark IV camera and EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM Lens, he lets stories unfold organically, with his subjects naturally emerging from their surroundings. 

“A great portrait captures the rawness and honesty of a moment and can truly shine when the subject feels comfortable and at one with their surroundings,” Stuart says.

One of his most memorable works was a series of photos taken on Bougainville Island in Papua New Guinea. In one particular portrait, he was able to capture the raw power and emotion of an unassuming security guard.

The moment presented itself when it began to rain heavily and he stood there shirtless, braving the storm. 

Stuart was drawn to the man's commanding presence and sought to frame him in a manner that evoked the full extent of his strength and courage. The resulting portrait was captivating, with the use of natural light and shadow lending a sense of empowerment.

Image: Stuart Miller

Stuart's ability to blend artistry and social commentary is also exemplified in his exploration of the intersectionality of race and religion. His work with Indigenous Muslims in Australia captured the nuances of identity often lost in larger cultural narratives.

One photograph, shot in Western Sydney, fuses the concepts of home, family, and tradition.

"I’m constantly drawn to the complexity of human identity, the kaleidoscope of facets that shape our lives and our stories. In my work with Indigenous Muslims in Australia, I was struck by the richness and diversity of their lived experiences, the way they navigated the complexities of their identities with grace and resilience. Through my lens, I sought to capture the nuances of their stories,” Stuart says.

Image: Stuart Miller

The art of planning to create lasting legacies

Captivating photos do not always emerge from spontaneous moments.

Cindy Kavanagh, a New Zealand-born Sydney-based Canon Pro photographer carefully chooses the lighting, subject, and props to capture the right shot, with the Canon Mirrorless R5 camera and EF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens as her gear of choice.

One of Cindy's most inspiring projects came during a time of great turmoil — the pandemic's lockdowns. She noticed how her family's dog played a vital role in lifting the spirits of her teenage children, a source of comfort, and a beacon of light during a challenging time.

Inspired by this observation, Cindy embarked on a new photography series, titled “teen+pet”. She put out a call for young people to participate in a portrait session to showcase their bond with their beloved pets.

Image: Cindy Kavanagh

Cindy's passion for capturing the spirit of her subjects has also led to the creation of her “50@50” series. This ongoing project has already seen her take stunning portraits of 25 women. She says she created a safe space for being vulnerable, where each woman can be seen, heard, and celebrated for who they truly are. 

Working with a team of stylists, makeup artists, and hairdressers she creates, storytelling portraits that become a legacy for the subject and a tribute to their life journey.

For example, Floria's portrait pays homage to her Russian Jewish and Korean heritage with a beautiful ceremonial dress and a bunch of Australian wildflowers adorning her hair.

The end result is not just a portrait but an artful chronicle of each subject's triumphs, struggles, and everything in between. The “50@50” series will be exhibited on International Women’s Day 2024. 

Image: Cindy Kavanagh

While these photographers each have their unique approach to capturing people, they have similar advice for aspiring artists looking to create captivating portraits. It all boils down to the connection between the photographer and the subject.

Stuart's pro tip for emerging portrait photographers is to exude the energy they hope to receive from their subject. Renae, on the other hand, emphasises the significance of establishing trust as the foundation for evocative portraits.

Meanwhile, Cindy highlights the importance of showing respect and fostering a safe environment, allowing subjects to feel comfortable baring their innermost authentic selves.

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