All good photography is a self-portrait, says Oded Wagenstein

In photography, life experience is a thousand times more important than technique or hands-on time with a camera, says portrait photographer Oded Wagenstein.

“Photography is a language. And like with any language, it does help to acquire it early, but it can be learned at any age,” he says. “What is more important is the maturity you bring to it.”

Wagenstein has been making portraits of people around the world for nearly two decades, working in remote locations such as Siberia and in urbanscapes that include a crumbling apartment block in Cuba. His work often explores inclusion and belonging as well as aging and has appeared in National Geographic and Vogue, in London's National Portrait Gallery and at the United Nations.

Although he began early, experimenting with his father's camera when he was six, he doesn't want to put off late starters, saying life experience brings with it a richness that enhances the work. A big believer in comfort and minimalism, he generally uses a single lens and camera.

Photography appealed because it pushed him in a way nothing else did. He describes the camera as a tool that forces him outside his comfort zone, "or at least to understand my fears better".

A senior lecturer at the Galitz School of Photography, based in Tel Aviv, Wagenstein says documenting history, capturing a moment or a memory, is also part of his profession's allure. “It helps us by winning a small victory over the devastating effects of time. The camera helps us to maintain the memory of the people we met and loved, and the memory of ourselves.

He believes what makes a work interesting is the personal story the artist "pours" into it and quotes the great American landscape photographer Ansel Adams, who said: “You don't make a photograph just with a camera. You bring to the act of photography all the pictures you have seen, the books you have read, the music you have heard, the people you have loved.”

When it comes to portraiture, authenticity is often debated: how much involvement, if any, should the photographer have with their subject?

Wagenstein disputes the argument that one should not approach the person being photographed; he believes it’s an excuse. “An excuse we [use] to stay in the comfort zone of photographing people from a distance or not photographing people at all.”

Separate from any philosophical argument, he believes shots taken in collaboration with the subject will also be better technically. “Because it allows control of almost any parameter - background, lighting, the ability to take multiple photos,” he says. “It is simply more enriching.”

Anyone looking to develop their skills in portraiture would do well to check out the extraordinary project Tiny by the late American photographer Mary Ellen Mark, he says. She took pictures of the same person for 30 years. Revisiting the same person over time is something he loves to do, as well as it being a great exercise.

“Good photography or any type of art is always interpretive; the first step is to formulate what we want to say or what we feel about the situation,” he says. “One cannot convey a person's story in a still portrait, you can only transfer a fraction of that story. A fraction that will allow the viewers to imagine the rest of the story, and one of the most important decisions is to decide which fraction you want to convey.”

In most instances, the actual photographing represents a tiny proportion of the time he spends with the individual in the shot. As in all photography, patience is critical but “to seize the moment, you have to predict it".

“If you try to capture the moment, physically, you will always be behind it.”

All good photography is a self-portrait, regardless of the genre you are shooting, says Wagenstein. "The most important task, much more than buying the most up-to-date equipment, is exploring. Explore the story of the person in front of you, but also explore and know yourself."

All credit for this article belongs to The Sydney Morning Herald

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