Kel Donaldson On Photographing People and Emotions
I met Kel Donaldson my first night of a week-long photography workshop in Mexico with Maggie Steber. She and I were both super excited to be there, and I could sense real passion that she has for photography. The next day as we all showed our portfolios to the group, Kel was the first to show her work in print form. The youngest member of the group (she’ll address that in her interview), and the first to show print photos. I knew how seriously she takes this passion. I also saw the emotion that she loves to capture in people. Read below to see what she loves to photograph, and how she got to where she is.
Bryn: I see so much passion in your photography. So, could you tell me what interests you most about photography?
Kel: I would say definitely the depth that you can get from a photograph just by approaching a subject, say in a foreign country like Mexico. The vulnerability that you can sense and see through an image is really what draws me to photography. I’m really inspired by the level of openness that people have when being photographed. Some people are open while others are more reserved. I’m really interested in the psychological experience from the subjects that are being photographed.
Bryn: And what would you say your favorite thing to photograph is?
Kel: Definitely people. I’m really inspired by capturing people and controlling them within my frame. I think that eyes really speak a lot about a person, you can read a lot from them. That’s an advantage in photographing people. I’m most interested in humanity and the comfort or discomfort that’s being experienced at that time, and how to find that trust with my subjects while also being able to create art.
Bryn: I think you put that really well. You find the humanity, you find the emotion that can be communicated in a photograph. And I think that is something that is kind of difficult to do, because you have to balance making sure that you get the framing that you want, making sure that you capture someone’s emotions, and making them comfortable with you.
Can you talk about some of the kinds of things that you do to make someone comfortable with you, so they can be themselves around you when you are photographing them?
Kel: That’s a great question. It’s kind of a different approach every time. I try to feel out my subject. Like if they have a certain sense of humor, and that’s what I’m going for in the moment, I want to see a smile. I’ll ask someone what’s your sense of humor? Can you tell me a little bit about yourself? Or, in other situations, because I’m a very controlling person, I will just instigate an emotion or try to evoke a feeling and see how that reflects on that other person, how they perceive it, and that will come out in my photography. So, often I’ve come off rather cold, and hard headed toward my subject. And I don’t know that a lot of photographers would agree with that, because if you are going to a foreign country or something, then you want to be respectful. But I find that to be really bold, and it evokes a lot of honesty in photographs if you see what makes people comfortable or uncomfortable sometimes.
Bryn: What kinds of things would you do that might make someone uncomfortable but might create a better photograph?
Kel: I would push the envelope. So, try to construct a photograph by being very straight forward. Sometimes I would make certain facial expressions, and my subjects would mimic those expressions. And then after I photograph it, I would give them praise, or communicate what I’m trying to accomplish, instead of just trying to make them uncomfortable. It’s best probably to disclose that information, but it’s hard. Like, when we were in Mexico, it was hard to bridge that gap, just because I only speak so much Spanish. So, you want to get them comfortable enough to be photographed, and let you kind of dominate the situation as far as what you want to control. But at the same time, it’s a tough balancing act.
Bryn: It was interesting the way Carlos [Ribas Monteiro] described the way he gets permission to photograph people if he’s at a public event. He described it as a kind of dance. (See this post to read more about Carlos Ribas Monteiro.)
Kel: Yeah I liked that. I liked that alot.
Bryn: Yeah, you remember that? It was really interesting, it was really rather poetic the way he described it. But I think it’s getting at what the experiences might be if you are photographing somebody, and you don’t speak so much of their language. You really have to read their eyes and see what they’re okay with.
Kel: Yeah, exactly. It’s a talent, definitely.
Bryn: Yeah, and I think that’s something that younger photographers, or people who are still growing their photographic practice, that’s the big hump they have to get over, trying to see how much they can push in doing different things and still have people allow them to do those things.
Kel: Right, exactly. I’m currently working on finding that balance.
Bryn: I think that you have had some really interesting experiences studying with some great photographers and traveling to interesting places because of your interest in photography. Do you want to tell me about that?
Kel: I first started going to college at the Art Institute of Boston, in Boston, which has since merged with Lesley University. I did that for a year as an intensive study. I was a photo major, but I felt like I still didn’t know how to market myself as a photographer. And all of the professors kind of shared the harsh reality that art for art’s sake wasn’t necessarily going to make you money. You have to really work your ass off and you might not even make ends meet. So, I said hey, maybe I don’t necessarily need a degree for this, and kind of decided that I would go the workshop route and try to do workshops with professionals.
So I transferred home to start going to an in-state college and somewhere along the way I decided I was going to go to Iceland. I had always wanted to go to Iceland, because I have ancestry there. Mary Ellen Mark was my favorite photographer at the time I saw that she was teaching a workshop in Iceland. I had been saving money for a while, and I emptied my bank account and went there for a month by myself. I did the workshop with her, and it was just incredible!
I also met Ariko Inaoka, who is an incredible photographer. She’s Japanese and she has been photographing these Icelandic twins for years, watching them grow older. She makes these super amazingly dreamy portraits. I met a lot of really cool people when I was there. But Mary Ellen Mark blew my mind. I mean, I think that meeting her totally changed the way that I photographed, and frankly, see the world. I think that she had that effect on a lot of her students.
Bryn: Can you give an example of how she blew your mind and why you thought that she was so amazing and why she taught you so much?
Kel: She would just tell me to do quirky things. She told me don’t be afraid to control people. She said that and I was like “Wow!” Because when she had first met me, her first impression was that I was super shy, and timid. But I have this side of me that’s super controlling, and so I was like, okay if I can master this, maybe I’ll earn some respect from her. But she boiled it down in such a way. She just said, don’t be afraid to tilt your camera, don’t be afraid to get in people’s faces or make people uncomfortable. Don’t be afraid to tell them what to do or move them how you want. This is what you have to do. And it simplified my whole vision, and I was able to actually start controlling subjects and structure photographs way more than I had before. I used to always do circumstantial photography, kind of like street photography. She taught me how to control my subjects, that I should be shameless. It was really really valuable. I just can’t describe her. She was just an incredible, incredible woman. And she inspired me to make amazing work, and I owe all of my photography to her at this point.
Bryn: I never got to meet her, but I’ve heard so many great things about her from the people that we met in Mexico. And then as I continue to do the Creative Live courses, and reading up on great photographers, she’s referenced a lot. So, I can’t imagine how awesome it would have been to have studied with her.
Kel: Yeah, and it was even more inspiring just because she was getting bone marrow transfusions during the workshop, and rubbing her legs. She was clearly in pain, but she never stopped. She never stopped teaching. She showed up to every lecture. She took it really seriously, and it was just incredible to see someone who’s going through that much pain still have so much passion and be willing to teach other photographers. I had little experience and little wisdom in the realm of photography, and she was able to push through her pain and share what energy she had left with us. And then she passed away the following spring. It was crazy. I was so grateful too. It was like I finally had found a mentor, and then she was gone. So, it’s tough. It was tough for everyone.
Bryn: I can’t imagine. That must have been really tough. And that’s such a testament to who she was, though, that she continued working and teaching other photographers even though she was really sick.
Kel: Yeah, I mean, she was in her 70’s, so it was incredible to be travelling and sick, and you’re travelling the world while you’re sick, and getting treatments so that you can impart your knowledge and wisdom. Wow.
Bryn: That’s something a lot of people would not be willing to do. I think most people would not be willing to do that.
Kel: Exactly yeah, she had grit.
Bryn: So, you studied for a month under Mary Ellen Mark. Is there anyone else who’s work that you follow that you would say has inspired your own work?
Kel: Definitely Ariko Inaoka, she’s a huge inspiration. I’m really into Ren Hang, who also committed suicide this last year. But, I met a lot of photographers that I’ve been following. Saga Sig, she’s a photographer in Iceland, and she’s won a bunch of awards. I went to one of her lectures during the workshop in Iceland, and her work is really awesome. She shoots in color film — the colors are so vibrant. You should definitely check her out, if you haven’t. Her work is brilliant.
Bryn: Okay, I definitely will. And I think you give a lot of good guidance too. A lot of the people who will read this interview really like photography, but they don’t know how to get where they want to be. What advice would you give them to become better photographers and to be able to take more interesting photos in their local cities?
Kel: Definitely taking advantage of the live view function on your digital camera. It really helps to use that to the best of your ability. There’s only so much you can see through a tiny little viewfinder. So, taking advantage of having that, I think that’s really really helped my photography, personally. And also using a tripod has really helped me. I always struggled with having slants, and my photography was kind of skewed a lot of the time. It wasn’t intentional, and sometimes it was distracting. So, using a tripod usually helped me to ground my subjects, and that would allow me to focus more on the subject and not have to worry about something being crooked or slanted. Once I established that, I felt like I could occasionally take it off the tripod and I could do what I wanted after having that base.
Bryn: So, you use the tripod to make sure that you get the framing how you want it to be in the camera. And then the live view, in what ways would you use that?
Kel: I definitely use if for my manual focus, because I have really bad vision. So, it’s really helpful in that aspect, because you can actually see whether or not something is in focus, as opposed through a viewfinder where it’s a lot more difficult. So in that aspect. And also it’s easier to see the colors. I’m more of a color photographer, so it’s easier to see how vibrant the colors are, and it’s easier to see your exposure if you’re not using a light meter, you can actually change your exposure and see what that looks like.
Bryn: That’s a really good point! Well, is there anything else that you wanted to add to this interview? I think you’ve given me some really good points so far.
Kel: Yeah, I don’t think there’s really anything else. You’ve asked some really great questions.
Bryn: Well, thank you so much! You’ve given me some really good information.
Be sure to follow Kel Donaldson’s work at www.keldonaldson.com. I’m sure you will be as impressed as I am with the emotion that she captures, and the angles that she takes to get you seeing things in new ways.