The Swap: Photographers as Subjects

It is no surprise that photographers are more comfortable behind the camera than in front of it. Even those who work in self-portraiture still retain complete control over their portrayal. When a photographer steps out from behind their lens to become the subject, they place their trust in someone else to represent their likeness in a manner that is true to how they see themselves. When that someone else is a fellow photographer with their own ideas about how their subject should be portrayed, an interesting collaboration is born. In August 2013, curator and photographer Stuart Pilkington developed The Swap, an experiment in portrait photography and online curation, to explore these ideas.

The premise is simple: two photographers make portraits of one another. Over the course of two days each assume the role of both the photographer and of the sitter. The two final portraits are published side by side on The While the idea of two people photographing each other may seem self-explanatory, the underlying message posits questions about how we see ourselves and what happens to our persona and comfort level when we hand the control over our likeness to someone else. Pilkington, whose other curatorial projects include The Alphabet Project, 12 Faces, and The 50 States Project says, “The idea of being in front of the camera is abhorrent to a lot of photographers, but for those who are willing to take part it is an opportunity to create something collaboratively with another photographer.”

Since it’s inception, the project has garnered over 200 pairings. As a curator, Pilkington is fairly hands-off in his approach. The participating photographers choose their own partners and select the final images. Additionally, they may submit accompanying text describing their relationship to each other, the experience of being photographed, and their thoughts on the collaboration. The presented portraits range from the simple to the opulent. Photographed over two days, some of the pairings are vastly different in location, mood, and style, while others look as though they were made within minutes of each other. Some participants use the opportunity to highlight their own signature style, others elect to make a non-portrait, obscuring the subject’s features or using an object as a surrogate. Many of the portraits show their subjects with the tools of their trade, some are even depicted as these tools. This reoccurring theme asks the question if photographers can ever really separate their identity from their occupation.

Kat Kiernan is the Editor-in-Chief of Don’t Take Pictures.

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