Plastic wrist-bands

Increasingly I am finding that, for me, the most rewarding parts of the Lifetimes in Law portrait project are the conversations that are an essential part of each portrait, the layers of subtle significance that can go into a portrait, and the unanticipated ripples of meaning that can radiate out from the act of slowing down to engage with another human being and capture their portrait.

I've been cherishing a lot of these aspects as I complete portraits and plan new ones, but recently it occurred to me that it's worth pausing to put aside some of the little details for sharing.

Often when we reach out to someone to invite them to participate in the project, we need to do so through an intermediary - sometimes we need an introduction.  When I ask someone we know to pass-on an invitation, I generally provide an "elevator pitch", succinctly explaining the project and providing reassurance that it's reputable and worthy, and that participation is not unduly onerous.

One of the harder concepts to explain in the "elevator pitch" can be the idea of taking portraits "in context" - using a background that has significance for the subject's life, work or interests.  Once the subject warms to the conversation, it can become a remarkably rich exercise in drawing-out the sorts of factors or places that have shaped them, but often when the topic of a "context" is first raised, it can draw the email equivalent of a blank look.

When I approached a friend to invite Justice Kirby to participate in the project, I explained the concept of context by suggesting that we could capture the portrait at Fort Street School or Strathfield North Public School.  I knew that Justice Kirby was a passionate advocate of public education, and surmised that one of these schools may hold some fond memories for him, and may have played an important formative role in who he ultimately grew to be.

When the email response came back, we saw that we'd successfully sold the concept, and Justice Kirby had seized on the idea of a portrait at Strathfield North Public School.  When I was talking to Justice Kirby after the portrait I commented on the fact that he appeared to be pulled in a multitude of directions by strangers asking him to participate in a wide array of different activities.  I raised our project as an example of yet more people imposing on his time.  He responded to the effect that, by mentioning Strathfield North school, I had used unfair tactics and had successfully appealed to his deep soft-spot for the school.  Sometimes you are just lucky with these things...

Often when I capture a portrait, I will find that initially it can be hard to persuade the subject to relax and be natural.  My guess is that there is a level of self-consciousness, or perhaps of self-protection - perhaps people still have their guard up, just in case the photographer tries to present them in an unfavourable light.  The Lifetimes in Law project is genuinely about celebrating and honouring the people we feature, and we always do our best to ensure that it's a positive and empowering experience - but I do accept that our subjects don't know that at the start of the process, and can't necessarily take it for granted.  Regardless, I will generally try to win trust as quickly as possible through conversation and listening.  One of the best ways to have a portrait subject relax and look natural and comfortable is to allow them to lose themselves in conversation.

In the conversation with Justice Kirby as he sat on the steps of the old infants' building at Strathfield North Public School, I raised the words he used in his initial email reply to say that he would participate in the project.  In response to my suggestion that we capture a portrait on the steps of the infants' building, he had replied that he would be "happy to sit on those steps that I ran up so confidently on my first day of school".  I replayed these words to him, and queried his use of "confidently".  It struck me as surprising that the five-year-old's emotion he would remember after more than seventy years would be "confidence".  He hadn't said "enthusiastically", "excitedly" or even "happily" - he remembered being confident.  When I asked the question, he paused to consider, and responded that his memories were always of being confident.  He attributed it to his mother, whose family were apparently quite successful and accomplished back in Ireland, with the result that she saw the inevitability of the accomplishments of her son, and imbued him with a similar sense of that inevitability. 

Something I never knew about Justice Kirby is that he doesn't drive.  He explained that he met his partner, Johan, quite early in the piece, and never had a need to drive because Johan drove.  Later in his career his roles came with Commonwealth cars, further entrenching the lack of any need to drive.  When Justice Kirby responded to our original email request to participate in the project, he included "transport" in the list of items to be resolved.  I would have overlooked it, if it weren't for the intermediary who passed on the email, who explained that Justice Kirby didn't drive, and would need to be picked-up from his office in the city.  As it turned out, this was actually perfect, as it meant that I had the trip from the city to North Strathfield to kick-off the conversation that is such a fundamental part of the portrait process.

Consistent with the idea that the portrait process should be an empowering experience, I typically select a shortlist of 3-6 images which I share with the subject so that they can participate in choosing the final image we use for the portrait on the website.  When I share the photos with the subject, I will generally use my judgment in recommending what I believe to be the best image.  When I shared the shortlist with Justice Kirby, I recommended what I considered the best technical image.  He came back on email, expressing views and sharing the views of his sister-in-law, but commenting on how one particular image (not the one I'd recommended) had to be preferred because it prominently featured his "gay wristband".  I'd noticed the wristband on the day, but hadn't really stopped to think about it.  Justice Kirby was immaculate - an expensive, neatly pressed pinstripe suit, highly-polished shoes, a perfectly-tied crisp-looking tie, an expensive-looking watch with a beautiful leather band - and a cheap, plastic wristband on the other wrist, that probably cost no more than $2.  It was clearly a very deliberate decision on his part to wear the wristband for the portrait, and we decided that we had to use that image.  I observed to him that it was delightfully subversive - a label that I suspect could be applied to much of his career.

The final point to note from the portrait session with Justice Kirby was that when he originally agreed to participate, he set a requirement that we present Strathfield North school with a copy of the resulting portrait. After we'd posted the portrait on the website, I had two large prints made and mailed them into his office to be signed.  I collected them from his office once they were signed, and assumed that he had simply signed his name, and perhaps dated them.  When I eventually got around to removing them from the mailing tube to have one framed, I discovered the words that he had written above his signature.  They were "I ran up these stairs in 1945 and 1946.  They were leading me eventually to the High Court of Australia and the United Nations.  I honour my teachers and classmates of Strathfield North P.S.  Play the Game [the school motto].  Michael Kirby 2017"

What a remarkable thing to have been part of...