Freelance photographer Oded Wagenstein has contributed to National Geographic, BBC, Timeout, and other prestigious platforms. In so doing, he has access to a wide range of people and cultures, but he's more than just the man who presses the shutter. He connects with the people he photographs: he remembers their names, listens to their stories, and beautifully highlights their emotions in his photographs. And despite his fear of speaking with strangers, he believes that when making a portrait, the story and emotions of the photographer are present as well; thus, his self-portraits are on display in each of his photographs. An instructor for the largest photography school in Israel, his students respect him and eagerly learn from him. And we applaud him for the way he cares for—and truly sees—the people of the world.
It’s easy to arrive in a place (even your hometown) and feel overwhelmed about where to go and what (and who) to photograph. How do you go from taking snapshots to making photographs that portray emotion and story?
That is an excellent question, because I can tell from my experience (and from the talks I have with my students) that we often feel overwhelmed with the visual possibilities of a place, especially if that place is new to us. Combine that with the digital ability to "shoot as much as you wish" and you will soon be in the fast lane to confusion. The other common feeling usually occurs when we’re in a familiar place—a sense that "everything was photographed and done before." Although those feelings of overwhelm and visual boredom seem opposite to one another, they create the same result: dissatisfaction.
I believe there are two methods to overcome this. The first is to understand that those feelings are part of our job as photographers. Good storytelling images don't just wait on the streets; they require concentration, creativity, and a lot of motivation. And unlike many other professions, you are alone in this one: you’re the boss. So it’s vital to learn how to be able to keep on working, even when you don't really know if and when the next good photo is waiting.
The second lies in the preparation: read as much as you can about the place (whether it’s familiar or unfamiliar), scout for inspirational images and references, get in touch with a fixer (local guide) who can take you to cool, off-the-beaten-path places. Also, make yourself a shot list of the images you wish to come home with. I am a true believer in serendipity, but having visual goals can help you to overcome those feelings of frustration.
What is your philosophy on portraiture?
I never thought about it, so I'm not sure I can formulate a philosophy. What I can share is that in every portrait I create, I wish that the viewer would be able to feel something; I want him or her to feel what I felt as I created that portrait. I believe that a good portrait is a combination of the story and feelings of the subject, but also the story and emotions of the photographer, making it sort of a self-portrait as well. If the photographer is detached from his feelings by concentrating mostly (or only) on the technical or aesthetic side of the portrait, as a viewer, I would be less interested in delving into his or her work. On the other hand, if the work is personal and emotional, I would be much more interested in it, even if it lacks a bit on the technical aspect. So my advice is to photograph only those you feel a great connection with. Invest in building a good dialogue and connection with them. A guy with a painted face in New Guinea or a woman with a jug on her head in Africa is not enough for it to be a good portrait. It has to convey something about that specific person and about that specific photographer.
If you had to describe your portraits to someone who had never seen them before, what would you say?
A few years ago, my grandma called me on the phone to say (with a bit of disappointment in her voice), "I’ve seen your portraits; they are nice," before she asked, "but why are the people in them are so sad?" At first, I denied it and didn’t understand what she was talking about. Later, I realized she was right. I don't know why, but it seems I feel connected to melancholy. You won’t see any tears in my portraits, but I often try to deal with the concept of loneliness and focus on individuals who are going through changes in their life and lifestyle.
I read that you prefer the term “cultural photographer” to “travel photographer"; why is that?
I came up with term “cultural photography” after understanding that the definition of travel photography—as I understand it—no longer fit what I do. I started my career as a travel photographer by traveling on assignments to far and exotic places, but at one point, I realized that the problem with the term "travel photography" is that "traveling" is necessary. I believe that you can have great travel photos of a place or culture in your own country or city, and even in your own home and with your own family. The problem is that we often overlook those local visual stories and prefer to travel far. I can sum it up with a quote I like by Dagobert D. Runes: “People travel to faraway places to watch, in fascination, the kind of people they ignore at home.”
Wow. That’s a powerful statement that truly puts it in perspective. So be it near or far, how have the people you’ve met changed you and your worldview?
When I am working on a project, only about 5% of my time is dedicated to making photographs. For the other 95%, I mostly learn from my subject. It can be something simple like a local recipe, but usually, my learning experience is much deeper. I learn how people around the world are coping with loneliness and loss, from a Thai fisherman faced with the horrors of the tsunami, to an elderly community in Cuba having to deal with the changes their country is going through by fighting not to be left behind.
Those emotional and vulnerable visual stories are evident in your portraits. In what ways do you believe that visual storytelling influences communication between various cultures?
Until a few decades ago, portraits and travel photography of the "Other" and "Different" were extremely popular. Under the pretext of "anthropological photography," the images portrayed the world of the different, exotic, and strange. I remember photography books I had as a child that were filled with tribal portraits, celebrating the colourfulness of the different. I believe that in today's world, our job as visual artists is to use visual storytelling to create a better world, and I hope that through my work I can show that people from different places and cultures are dealing with the same problems and fears; that we are much more similar than we think we are.
What are you most proud of in your life?
I guess the question is directed to the professional aspect of my life. In that case, I am most proud of my students, for proving to me on a weekly basis that they have the courage to step out of their comfort zones and create a dialogue with a stranger, without using the safety zone of the telephoto lens. When a student comes to me with the biggest smile ever to tell me that he couldn’t believe that people—strangers!—actually agreed to grant him a portrait, that brings me greater joy than a publication in a prestigious magazine or photo contest.
To learn more about making emotional and vulnerable portraits, read Oded's eBooks: The Visual Storyteller and Stories & Faces: Composition for Stronger Stories and Better Portraits.
Oded Wagenstein is a cultural photographer, writer, workshop leader and regular contributor for National Geographic, National Geographic Traveler, Time Out (Hebrew editions) and Getty Images. Between writing books on photography and traveling the world, he shares his knowledge with students at the largest photography school in Israel and in international workshops. Oded can be found online via Facebook and at odedwagen.com.