Photographing Foreign Leaders with High Security

From the Profoto Master Series comes this interview featuring Greg Heisler, a veteran Time Magazine photographer with over 70 covers under his belt. In the video, Heisler details his experience creating a portrait of late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, contrasting it with his session, in the same trip, photographing Israeli prime minister (at the time) Edud Barak:

Heisler describes the intense security measures he had to submit to in both cases; when meeting Barak, the process was tightly secured but intricately organized, running through bomb-sniffing dogs and detailed inspection of every piece of equipment, as he puts it, “like clockwork”. Conversely, his experience with Arafat was somewhat more disorganized, taking a week to make contact and then suddenly being thrown into a whirl of activity.

Yet, despite intimidating encounters at gunpoint with Palestinian guards, he was ultimately allowed in with barely any check at all. We won’t deign to interpret this difference in approach, but it is an interesting perspective on the contrast between Israeli and Palestinian outlooks – at least as far as American media goes.

portrait photography

To make the portrait, he used a simple and elegant setup in order to isolate the subject from his environment – a method many photographers employ in order to get to the soul of the person they’re capturing. Using a black velvet background and a single soft box directly over the camera, he took the shot on a 4×5 view camera, which he attributes to helping the guarded leader open up (“I’ve not seen a camera like that since I was a little boy”, he said) and encouraging a closer connection to him through the image.

Heisler makes an interesting point about people responding differently to different cameras; in a photography session, the camera is like another person – the subject communicates as much (possibly more) with it than with the photographer. When they’re posing, they look at the lens, the camera’s eye, and they talk to it through their energy and body language. What the camera looks like, and the feelings it evokes in them, can influence how they respond emotionally in the same way that they respond to people based on how they look, act, and feel. That difference really does shine through, as you can see in Hesler’s final, iconic image.

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