Dan Bannister is a Canadian photographer that boasts modest clients such as Prada, Nike, Honda, The Wall Street Journal, AMC and McDonald’s. He also works with some of North America’s top ad agencies; Cossette, DDB, Rethink and J. Walter Thompson to name just a few. But for the small price of a donation to a Torontonian food bank, the Fort York Food Bank, you can have him shoot your own personal portrait, to ensure you look the bomb on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, Tinder, Grindr or wherever else your face may be plastered.
The initiative is called Portraits for Good and involves Dan shooting around 100 people over the course of three days. Each participant gets the same attention that Dan would give to any campaign he may be working on. For the past few years the event has been confined to Toronto, but future expansion may be on the cards. LBB’s Addison Capper finds out how below.
LBB> What inspired the idea Portraits for Good? How long have you been doing it?
DB> It originally started as a way to do something nice for clients at the end of the year that was unique and valuable to the recipients. I was chatting one day with an art director friend about how most profile pictures on Linkedin were “less than great” and she said hers was awful and she needed a good one. She offered to pay me for a sitting and I suggested she donate what she felt it was worth to her favourite charity. My old rep at the time was supporting a local food bank near their offices so, that’s how the idea was born. The first year, I emailed clients and offered a portrait in exchange for a donation to the food bank and the response was pretty incredible.
LBB> For each event you take a few days to set up and design specific, distinctive shots – tell us about your process. What makes for a good setup?
DB> I put as much effort into the process as I would an ad or magazine shoot – a lot. We end up getting about 100 people through the studio in three days so everything has to be set up in advance, much like you’d do for a celebrity shoot. We build out a couple of different sets and I keep my eyes open all year for ideas that will inspire interesting portraits. A month or two before, I start building a file of notes for different lighting and set up ideas. A couple of assistants and I then set up the studio and test the ideas out early in the week. The Broncolor rep also comes to the studio for a day and brings all the latest toys and gadgets for us to try. This year one of the sets is going to be lit with manufactured window light from a continuous source because so many of my jobs are both motion and stills now that using continuous light has become almost the standard.
I think a good set up is interesting and versatile. It’s important to remember that most people are uncomfortable with having their picture taken so things like comfortable chairs or tables to lean on or hide behind are both visually interesting and helpful for the subject. We have to get them comfortable as quickly as possible so having a couple of options along with some versatility built in is key.
LBB> What are the tricks to capturing a good portrait?
DB> It depends a lot on who is deciding what’s ‘good’. If the audience is an art director or a photo editor, the answer will be ‘the most interesting picture’ or the picture that propels the narrative we’re trying to create. If the subject is deciding what is good, the answer will likely be ‘the most flattering one’. There are so many elements involved in making a good portrait that it’s hard to condense it into a paragraph. When it comes to the subject, I think a lot of it comes down to chemistry. Most people are at least a little uncomfortable with being in front of someone’s camera. We all have our insecurities and they’re never more obvious to us than in a photograph so being able to sense people’s reluctance and put them at ease goes a long way towards creating a successful portrait.
For me personally, I think a ‘good’ portrait is one that makes the photograph itself look interesting. A small gesture or an expression, some unusual piece of light or a texture in the background. Something that makes the eye linger longer than a few seconds on a portrait and makes you want to know more about the subject makes it ‘good’ in my mind.
LBB> You do a lot of advertising work – what's the biggest difference between shooting regular people, like you do for Portraits for Good, compared to an ad?
DB> Most of the advertising work I do involves at least some amount of direction from a client or an art director. There are a lot of people with a stake in the outcome so it’s pretty collaborative. When I get an opportunity to photograph someone in a way that I want to, it’s a lot of fun. It’s very liberating creatively. Most of the people I shoot for ads are professionals in front of the camera, they’re paid to be there and most are pretty comfortable with how they appear on camera. People who don’t stand in front of the camera for a living are usually much more impatient with the process. Most people think that a picture takes the few seconds that it takes to open your phone and snap a selfie. Making something great takes a lot more time than that and I can see it on their faces when they start to get used to the idea that this is going to take more than 10 seconds. You have to talk with them, explain what you’re doing and prepare them to invest a bit of time and energy in showing you their personality a bit in order to create something really good. That’s a big challenge and I love it.
LBB> Has anything about Portraits for Good surprised you? Do you have any good stories from the shoot days?
DB> I’d have to say that people’s generosity is what surprises me most. The event always fills up really quickly so I end up having to turn people down every year – but they still offer to come by the studio with a box of food for the foodbank which I find very generous. The delivery to the foodbank at the end of the week is always incredible.
LBB> This year the donations are going to the Fort York Food Bank. Why did you choose this charity?
DB> They’re in my neighbourhood. I want the impact to be as local as possible so, after some research, chose to work with them and they’ve been incredibly responsive.
LBB> Any parting thoughts?
DB> I work a lot in New York as well and my rep and I have been talking about doing the event there too. I’m going to do a weekend one in the New Year and I’m trying to find the right charity group now. It’s tough to pick the right one because there are so many to choose from, so I’m open to some suggestions on a worthy group that I can partner with over multiple years. I’m also thinking about inviting a couple of other photographers to get involved with the New York one and make it a bit more of a group effort.