AB: So Ruth, you needed new pics for quite an exciting reason, right?
RD: Haha, yes. I’m a literary translator and the book of my dreams that I’ve been working on for years is coming out soon—you know, the kind of project where you almost feel the hand of fate reaching down from on high—and my publisher now wants to put it forward for, ahem, not to jinx it, let’s call it a Major International Prize, and needs a headshot or two for the application. None of my decades-old profile pics or iPhone 8 selfies felt worthy of the occasion, so I asked around and found you!
AB: Excellent. Thanks to the soon-to-be son-in-law, here we are! How come your profile pics are decades-old”?
RD: I hate having my picture taken, but years ago a friend of mine with a good camera took a candid shot of me that I really liked, and I used it for ages, but now it seems all but delusional or fraudulent to pretend it still looks like me. On other occasions when a publisher has asked for a photo, I’ve just used a phone pic, but this time, I wanted to put my best foot forward.
AB: Ahhhh good ole phone pics. To be fair, the cameras on the latest phones are amazing and photographers can do a lot with them and an editing app. Nothing beats getting another person to do them, rather than recruiting your self-timer (she says, needing to take her own advice with the social media content).
Is the “hating having your picture taken” thing new?
RD: Not really. I’ve never minded it much when it’s just for family or friends, but as soon as it’s for some official purpose and there’s a great big lens pointing in my face, I don’t know how to hold myself or what to do with my face or hands. It all makes me rather nervous. Maybe it’s just a question of practice, which I haven’t had. But in this case, doing so over a friendly chat and a cuppa with some groovy music in the background at your studio made it much more fun than I expected.
AB: Practice does help, actually. And so do coffee and vintage George Benson on the stereo. And “more fun than I expected” is something I’ve heard a lot, which is nice.
So, you’ll be using your portraits for the ahem-Major-International-Prize application. Where else will you be using them?
RD: Well I’ve already swapped out the decades-old Facebook profile pic for one you took, but otherwise, they’ll be useful next time a publisher needs a translator pic. And my daughter insisted I keep one from the proof sheet, where I was pulling a face with my eyes crossed, to be used as a backdrop at my funeral.
AB: She chose well and perhaps “funereal backdrops” is my next calling… . Were you nervous about the shoot?
RD: I was rather nervous. It had to be done at very short notice—so grateful you could fit me in!—and I didn’t feel well prepared for it. Not to mention all the usual insecurities we as women get foisted on us around ageing and body image. But I’ve been so pleased with the results, I get the sense that the pictures give a fair representation of who I am, now, at this particular point in my life, and that it’s okay.
AB: This is wonderful to hear. “A fair representation”. I like that. LinkedIn, when we update our profile pic, says “Help people recognise you”. I think this is very helpful language, actually. My agent says this about a good actor headshot - that he looks at it and says “Oh, there’s [insert actor’s name]”. He feels the photo is accurate. In a perfect profile pic world, what would you want your photos to say about you? What do you think your agent wants to say when they look at your pic? “There’s Ruth, she’s________”
RD: That’s a really interesting question. Unlike actors, or anyone else with a public-facing role really, physical appearance isn’t an important aspect of our public persona—if we even have one. So when I see a translator’s headshot, I don’t look at it and say “Oh there’s XYZ”, but more “Oh, so that’s what XYZ looks like, interesting.”
Translators are famously invisible, working in the shadow of their authors. With a few notable exceptions, we don’t often get interviewed or take part in public events, and we don’t expect our faces to be recognised in the way that writers might, much less actors or journalists. Even though of course we write every word of the books we translate, hold copyright, receive royalties, and generally collude in the smoke and mirrors act that has people believing they are reading the original author. So a translator photograph only needs to show someone reasonably presentable, confident and professional, rather than someone with an interesting physique that people will pay good money to spend hours looking at.
But there are some similarities between the work of actors and translators: taking a written text and transforming it, interpreting and incarnating it, into spoken language and movement on stage or film for actors, and into another written language, on another page for translators. So perhaps, in a perfect world, a translator's headshot would also convey qualities like a keen sense of observation,the capacity to reflect deeply on challenging artistic texts, and the creativity and precision required to replicate them. A tall order, of course!
RD: Do you approach photographing actors and writers or other professionals in different ways?
AB: Now it’s my turn to say “Interesting question”. My initial response is yes, partly because actors tend to be more open to the photography experience - headshots are an integral part of the job. But actually, in the process of a headshot shoot I think I approach everyone more or less the same way.
The first part of any shoot is always a period of getting used to being in the space, relaxing and beginning to form a connection with each other. Actors are used to doing this but that doesn’t mean they find it easy to relax and connect. Sometimes I remind them that the photography experience is exactly the same as a scene. It’s a long improvisation, effectively. They’re welcome to play and they can’t get it wrong. I guess I’m able to use slightly different language with actors. I really enjoy that and they do too, it’s a crafting of mood and intention. We actors LOVE that. So I’m directing them as well as creating different lighting states and composing the shot in the camera. I’m a director, DoP, and girl gaffer, which is quite complex. But I like complex.
Once any client has begun to relax, I always look forward to the moment they begin to make offers. This is actor-speak for those unconscious things every person does when they want to be photographed differently. Sometimes at the beginning of a session I will talk about this with clients who aren’t actors, to reassure them that in spite of their uncertainty they will start to collaborate and enjoy themselves. Everyone does. It’s a magical moment for me to observe, watching someone developing a sense of agency as they’re doing something new. It’s no longer something that’s “happening to them”, they’re involved.
AB: Something else I say to reluctant subjects, regardless of their job, is: how you feel about your photographer matters. Today I was speaking to a woman who needs a headshot update for her executive coaching business, about how much a sense of friendliness contributes to the experience. In an hour-long shoot, we get to develop that but it can also happen in a 10 minute slot in a boardroom - it just requires fast-tracking. Jokes and silliness - and a smile from me - always help.
I really loved what you wrote about the artistry involved in your job, and about being “famously invisible”. I think so many of us these days - especially as we are all swept along in a flood of digital imagery, “content” and other people’s selfies - would like to stay in the shadows. But we all have to front up some time, especially when we are involved in anything significant, as you have been. As Hunter S always said: Buy the ticket, take the ride. I really hope you’re selected for this Major International Prize.
RD: Haha, it's the longest of long shots, but thank you anyway.
I wondered if you could say more about what you said to me as I was leaving, about how one of your goals is to take pictures of women of a certain age who are at moments when they need to reinvent themselves. That really struck a chord with me.
AB: Well, regarding reinvention: I had a client visit a couple of weeks after you who’s an author needing a back-of-the-book shot and also some pics for her new website. One of the words she provided as a touchstone for the shoot was rebellion. She and I had a conversation during the shoot about the importance of “re” words for people in mid-life, and women in particular. I mentioned reinvention to her, and we discussed renaissance, reconciliation, return, review, re-start, renewal and so on. My male contemporaries would say that these things are also relevant (there’s another one: relevance!) to mid-life men, hence the cliches about cars, motorcycles and Grecian2000, but I think menopause is important, along with the falling away of mothering responsibilities, not to mention the ageism which persists for women around “beauty”.
Many of the women who’ve come through my studio over the last three months have been reinventing themselves. Some with a new look or “vibe”, some moving into a different part of their industry, many having left their role in a large organisation in favour of self-employment, some starting again, often with the sense that they are returning to something they’d either forgotten or put on hold. I am very pleased - grateful, actually - to help them navigate this particular part of the process. Having one’s photo taken in our 50s or 60s might sound innocuous but actually it’s a watershed experience for many of us, especially if it’s been a long time since we sat down in front of a camera.
I have come to think of mid-life as a kind of corridor we walk down and on the way we have to loosen our grip on certain things, eventually dropping them all together. With this falling away comes a freshness, some new permission, the sense that you’re able to start again but this time with some wisdom you’ve acquired in a few decades as an adult. Life is still an adventure and we want to take some risks. A mid-life crisis is a bit different with the internet around, I reckon. And we are living longer on average now so reinventing ourselves feels (for me anyway) like something we get to do properly and possibly more than once… .
That’s exciting, to have more time.