Danish photographer Jesper Storgaard Jensen has large work of street portraits made in Rome. Here's a selection and a few questions.
Jesper, please tell us about yourself:
I’m Danish with a linguistic background, as interpreter and translator between Danish and Italian. In 1997 I moved to Rome to work as trainee at the Danish Embassy. After the trainee period of one year I was hired in the Embassy’s political and economic office.
I have always loved writing and in my spare time I did stories about Italy’s political life to a Danish weekly paper. Then, slowly I also started to do travel features from around Italy.
Over the years my journalistic activities had been constantly increasing, and in 2008 I left the Embassy to become a full-time freelance journalist and photographer.
What inspired you to become a photographer?
At one point I had sent a travel article about the Italian island of Pantelleria to a Danish daily. The paper liked the story, but I had no photos to go with the article. I tried to get photos from a municipal photo archive in Sicily, but the quality was very poor.
So the year after, when I once again went to Pantelleria, I brought along a brand new Olympus 5-megapixel camera! After that summer the article was finally published.
That was in 2002. Since then, my photographic interest and passion has really grown to become a substantial part of my life. And it’s still growing!
Tell us about these street portraits, what initiated the spark?
I used to move around in Rome on a scooter, which is the most convenient means of transportation in a city with too many cars. Unfortunately, my scooter broke down by the end of 2013, and I started to use public transportation. But I also started to walk a lot.
Some months earlier I had read an article about a guy who was doing street portraits, I think in the USA. I don’t remember his name, but the story really fascinated me. Actually so much that probably my subconscious had absorbed all that fascination.
In fact, one morning in March I woke up and had this really clear feeling, which was almost physical: I was going to do the same here in Rome: portraying complete strangers on the streets of Rome while walking to and from my office.
What attracts you to the particular people you make portraits of?
At first I didn’t really have an “aesthetic objective” in mind. I was just so thrilled to get started and to get the first OKs from strangers. Then, a bit later I started to focus on interesting faces in a more conscious way. It’s very appealing to photograph female beauty, because the result looks so good on your camera’s screen!
But apart from that – which is, I guess, quite obvious – there are so many interesting and expressive faces around, especially people at a certain age, whose facial expressions have been modeled by a long – and sometimes hard – life.
So I was looking for faces that communicated something. The goal was to photograph people from all social classes, of different ages and also with different skin colors”.
Tell us about your process, you engage in a conversation first? How do you do it?
I go straight to the point. I excuse myself politely and tell the subject that I’m a photographer working on a project about street portraits, and then I ask if I may make a short portrait of the person. Maybe I give a compliment on a hat, a piercing or something else that the person carries. But it has to be very natural with a good and natural eye contact.
Sometimes I could see doubt yet interest. At that point I give the person my business card and suggest to send him/her a copy of the shots, if they simply send me an empty mail. The keyword is, of course, politeness and sometimes also self-irony – with some persons I defined my project as “a bit mad” – when you feel an interest in the subject.
Why do you separate your subject from their environment by not giving enough information in the background?
I was very focused on portraying people, their faces, their eyes. I wanted an impact, maybe even something emotional. I wanted to cut out things that could be distracting.
But at the same time I have left in the person’s personal stuff, e.g. rings, piercings, cigarettes, sunglasses, a scarf, a paper or something else, because these subject all tell ‘a small story’ about the subject. I liked to photograph the subject in the exact situation where I spotted them.
How do you know you’ve made THE portrait of that person?
Well, moving on with my project I became better at spotting interesting faces. When you walk around and look at people’s faces you’ll really find interesting subjects. Not necessarily beautiful, but first of all faces that are very communicative and that tell a story.
The moment I had an interesting person in front of me who was willing to collaborate and the lightning was right (I always looked for them in the shade to avoid shadows in the face), I knew that things were “going to get interesting”. At that point it’s important to choose the right camera settings for the best possible shot.
The rest is up to a very elaborate postproduction process made according to the lightning and – especially, I would say – to the character of the subject”.
What were these portraits shot with? How were you and your camera received?
All portraits were shot with the Nikon D7100 and a Sigma lens, 50 mm 1.4.
Well, I have really talked to many people in this period. It’s incredible how different reactions can be when you approach people. I didn’t do statistics but I would say that some 40% of the people I approached said ok. Some of the people I photographed were very glad to participate and I could sense a true enjoyment.
One guy took me to a café and we had a coffee and a friendly chat. Another one wrote to me to tell me how pleased he was with the portrait, and he asked me if he could commission me to photograph his family. Another one has asked me to print a copy of the photo with my signature, which I gladly accepted.
Any closing comments?
It’s been a very enriching experience, really a lot. But you have to be convinced, because it’s not easy. The more convinced you are, the more it will shine through in your own approach and the bigger are the chances of success.
I felt that every time I had to ask a person it was a bit like preparing mentally for a high jump, and some days I really felt inadequate. I have learned a lot.
Both as regard the psychological mechanisms between photographer and subject, but also about doing portraits, handling the light, suggesting poses and expressions, doing postproduction and so on. And in the future I’ll probably do another street portrait project – probably with a special selected theme.
More of Jesper: Check out Jasper's work on his website
Want to become better at portraits? Check out the “Portrait tips & Techniques” ebook