How to get the right photo for “personas”

How important is the image for the personas?

Lately here at SnitkerGroup we are taking the photos of the personas really seriously. I am really happy about that, not only because I really like to work with personas but because I am the one taking the photos!
As a trained photographer  back in school I studied how to take portraits. As usual, the education was based on the practical matters of the trade: lighting, composition, effects and the processing in the lab (I am really happy with digital photography and its workflow, but more on that later).
The one thing missing was, and this is the most important part of a portrait, how to put in a 2D image the representation of the person, just how to transmit a part of its soul or personality into the paper (or screen).
There was a  great portrait photographer called Yousuf Karsh. He worked with large format cameras and only took a few photos of each person. He tended to talk and get to know the subject rather than just “fish” for the photo. Some of his most famous images are the portrait of Sir Winston ChurchillAlbert EinsteinErnest Hemingway and Audrey Hepburn among many.
The story behind  Sir Winston Churchill’s portrait is rather interesting. The photographer told the story that he took away Churchills cigar and went back to the camera to take the photo. Churchill “looked so belligerent he could have devoured me”  stated Karsh.
The idea behind this portrait was to show a more human side of the great leader, instead of the heroic “out of this world” images that most of the fascist leaders (and in general every politician) tended to used.
I will not go into any technical and subjective explanations of this photo, except one: the photographer is looking “down” on him. He wanted to show Churchill as human as possible and not as this big leader. Looking down on him would never put Churchill back in the “realm of the everyday people” but at least will level it down a little.
Now, what does all this have to do at all with personas?
A lot. More than what I imagined when I went to take my first “persona” portrait.
The process starts with getting a draft of the persona describing who they are, name, age, background, likes and dislikes, fears and goals. This will give me starting point to think of how the photo should look and different situations to work with. Then I talk to the person who will play the persona, explaining the personas concept in case they don’t know about it. If they do, I like to have a quick chat about it and hear their opinions.
But I am not there to take a portrait of someone real, but instead of someone pretending to be the persona.
I tell them who is the persona that they will be representing and then ask them about themselves and to tell me who they are. I am still taking a photo of them and no matter how much I try, that will be reflected on the photo.
Since we are not working with professional models but with “real people”, this could be strange for them. It is not just a photo. It is a photo of someone else.
I found out is that most of the users like to interpret the character and look for similarities between them and the persona and point out the differences. They get more engaged in the process of making the photo.
Thanks to digital photography and the immediate feedback, after every shoot (not every capture, but series of captures for  a specific situation or pose) I show the photos and we discuss them together.
The results are not only more real looking personas, but (and this could be a subjective interpretation) a more accurate photo of the persona.
This is something that cannot be achieved by using stock photography or even photos of random people from places like flickr.
To make a photo believable and to transmit a part of the persona character and “soul” there is the need of everyone involved to be part of the process.

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