We are all proud of something but most of the time we don’t think about it. We tend to focus more on our problems. Reminding ourselves about things we are proud of may help us feel a bit better. This was the starting point for my project. But it wasn’t always an easy road.
I started on the project in earnest in the summer of 2022. I attended a one-week photo workshop where we were expected to photograph a ‘room’. My ‘room’ became the memory of my late grandmother who was a seamstress. I took pictures of a group of women that were knitting at another workshop in the same place. After some time, I realized that these women must be proud of their skills and the fact that they are keeping an old tradition alive (they were using old knitting examples as inspiration). I asked if I could take individual portraits of them. Some, but not all, said yes. I did not tell them as a group about my idea. Instead, I brought them individually to my little ‘studio’ – a place in front of a curtain between two windows. At the ‘studio’ I told them about the project and asked them to close their eyes and think of something they are proud of. When they opened their eyes again, I took their portraits. Some of the images turned out quite strong, I think.
Before, I had never dared to ask a stranger to take their portrait. That all changed during a street photography workshop in Paris led by Peter Turnley. The first person I asked was an elegant lady walking by the Seine. The second person was an old gentleman in a hat. They both said yes almost without hesitation. Then I got some nos. It felt bad, really bad. But after a few more days and with an encouraging pep talk from Peter, I started to feel less bad when I got a no. One day, I got up the courage to ask some younger women if I could take their portrait. I was more or less certain that they would say no to me – an older man. When I got two yeses in a row from younger women, I was so moved, I started crying.
Later that week, I decided to go to one of the suburbs of Paris as I wanted to photograph the architecture of a building. I had heard that some of the suburbs were kind of rough and decided not to ask the locals if I should go. I was sure they would say no anyway. Instead, I made my own way and found the building. When I started photographing, there weren’t many people around, just a few people unloading stuff from a car at some distance. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a young guy came running towards me extremely fast. He shouted something in French that I did not understand. When he reached me, he started pushing me violently. I almost fell backwards. I realized that he did not like that I was taking photographs. I backed off and he left. I was shattered. I put away my camera, found a train and went back to central Paris.
The shock of the assault affected me deeply. I had no desire to take any more photographs, even though I felt that I should. We were expected to bring 30 new pictures to the workshop the next day, but I couldn’t pick up my camera. I sat down in a small park by the Seine and contemplated my dilemma. Nearby, three young guys were doing parkour. We started chatting and one of the guys had a T-shirt with text in Swedish. I asked if he knew what the words meant but he didn’t. The text was ‘Strong, Proud, Confident’. They let me take their portraits, which was what got me back on track. It felt good.
In February 2023, I attended another workshop, this time in Amsterdam. It was led by Gabrielle Motola. During the workshop I reached a new level of understanding about how my feelings and attitude as a photographer affects the way people respond when I ask to take their portrait. According to Gabrielle, if you can convey your intentions in a clear way, and make it known you are interested in the person you are asking for a portrait, you are more likely to get a yes. She believes you should also be mentally prepared for a possible no, which reduces the effect of any negative feelings you may get. This helped me in practice, since I am genuinely interested in what people are proud of.
In fact, when I look back even further, I can trace this particular interest to my work recruiting new staff to my university for the past ten years. One of the questions I always ask a candidate, and the one that makes them react and really think, is this: “Tell me about something you are particularly proud of in your career.” Most people seem to appreciate the question and, from what I can tell, give very honest answers. When I ask this “surprising” question early in the interview, I get the impression that most people feel more relaxed for the rest of the interview.
For my photo project, I take a similar approach. I begin by starting conversations with strangers that I meet. If the conversation goes well and the situation feels right, I start to talk about pride and the photo project ‘Proud People’ that I am working on. Most (but certainly not all) of the times, people say yes when I ask if they would like to be part of the project.
If they say yes, I ask them to close their eyes and think of something they are proud of. When they open their eyes, I press the shutter. (If the situation allows, I try to position myself or the person so that I can make good use of the existing light at the place we met.) The person may open their eyes whenever they like. To my surprise, many keep their eyes closed for a very long time. The feeling of trust between me and the person I photograph is extremely strong in these moments. To stay with your eyes closed in front of a person that you do not know is, to me, a strong indicator of trust. It gives me hope. It reminds me that most people are nice and friendly.
After photographing the person, I ask if he/she would like to share what they were thinking. In most cases, people are willing to share their thoughts. I then also ask if they would like to share their name. I record their answers. Not infrequently, I am surprised about what people bring up.
Here are some examples of reasons people I photographed have given for them being proud:
I am proud that I divorced my wife.
I am proud that I divorced my husband.
I am proud that I rebuilt my summer house all by myself, including blasting away rock.
I am proud that I have milked cows for 39 years.
I am proud that I go to the city jail and talk to young inmates.
I am proud that I have started several companies with many employees.
I am proud that my students are satisfied.
I am proud that I saved a child from being ran over by a car.
I am proud of my heritage.
I am proud of my grandchild.
I am proud of my children.
I am proud that I dared to change my career.
I am proud that I am a kind person.
I am proud to have managed my mother’s estate.
I am proud of nothing special.
As I continue to work on this project, I’ve been making it my aim to photography ordinary people at random. This can be challenging. We are all full of prejudice and fears, even when we think we aren’t. Many photographers prefer to approach people that look a little extraordinary, since they probably won’t mind being photographed. Some may find, myself included, that they tend to photograph men more than women or vice versa. I try to stay aware of this, and to include people of all ages and sexes in my project.
If I can use this project to share some of the many different reasons people feel proud, and to convey the expressions and feelings that pride evokes in them, if I can showcase the fact that so many ordinary people are in reality extraordinary, then I will feel proud too.
See Christer’s Proud People project as a slideshow here.