Image Focus

Régis Defurnaux | A Face of History

I don't like cliched portraits. For me, a staged, smiling picture means very little. It’s too easy and naive – and most importantly it tells you very little about the subject.

In fact, if my job was just about the pictures, I would stop doing it. It’s the fieldwork that matters – relating, connecting, talking, and trying to understand people with ethnographic intelligence.

When I make portraits, like this one of a herder called Bor, from the northern Bulgan Province of Mongolia, it’s always in the spur of the moment. The composition comes from a part of their character, some elements of their history or the wider context of their society that I study.

Bor is 84 years old now and has spent most of his life in the area with his animals. He lived through the Communist regime and had a hard life working the land as a herder, which is now almost impossible, resulting in continuous migration towards the cities – leaving that nomadic culture fading.

Speaking with Bor, I suddenly realised that I have almost a whole century of toil and worry sitting in front of me. It's a difficult situation that he was describing to me, so that’s how I framed the picture, with this complexity and tension from the dark negative space behind him, and the high contrast on his face. There’s also a tilt to the frame, purposefully intended to show the strain of this life - far from romanticised travel photographs.

For photojournalism and documentary photography in particular, the Sony Alpha 7C is an amazing companion, especially when it’s paired with the G Series lenses like the FE 50mm F2.5 G. The camera is inconspicuous, silent, and not aggressive like a DSLR body can be, and the rangefinder format with the viewfinder on the left means I can shoot with my right eye, keeping my face visible and open to the people around me. They see me seeing them and this helps to ensure my subject’s respond in a reciprocal way. It’s part of my ethics and why I am a documentary photographer.

portrait of an old man looking into the light

© Régis Defurnaux | Sony α7C + FE 50mm f/2.5 G | 1/200s @ f/2.5, ISO 800

In this shot, I was using the Sony Alpha 7C’s articulated screen to frame. This helps me free my eyes and movements from the viewfinder limitations. It also lets me frame from above when I'm in a crowd or from the ground. I used the screen on my Sony camera as a framing guide, letting me underexpose by just the right amount, keeping the darkness of the background heavy and letting the highlights on Bor’s face stand out.

It’s not a romantic picture, it's a truthful one. And he’s facing into the light, which, for me, means he looks to the future with open eyes.

This picture will be going into a book I’m publishing about 21st Century Mongolia. When documenting a rural transition, I try to capture the harsh beauty of the land, making impactful images that help to tell the story of a nation going through a deep transformation.

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