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Tampa Bay Times photographers pivot to shooting portraits in a coronavirus pandemic

Staff discuss their approach to portraits, a frequent alternative to illustrating stories during a health crisis.
Portrait of Rev. Stephan Brown by Boyzell Hosey, for a story featuring Rev. Brown, who participated in the Oxford-AstraZenca COVID-19 vaccine trial. Tuesday, Dec. 23, 2020.
Portrait of Rev. Stephan Brown by Boyzell Hosey, for a story featuring Rev. Brown, who participated in the Oxford-AstraZenca COVID-19 vaccine trial. Tuesday, Dec. 23, 2020. [ BOYZELL HOSEY | TIMES | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Feb. 22
Updated Feb. 22

Starting in the spring of 2020, and throughout most of last year, many photo assignments seemed to be portraits.

At the Tampa Bay Times, photography is always needed to illustrate stories but in the middle of a health crisis, photographers had to proceed with caution.

While reporters and editors could effectively work from home, photojournalists were out in the field every day. Safety guidelines required the use of masks and a reliance on long lenses to maintain a safe distance. We were to work outdoors as much as possible, aka no going into people’s homes.

As we’ve learned more about the coronavirus, and how it spreads, photographers decide on whether to be indoors with photo subjects on a case-by-case basis. But the portrait was then, and is now, the safest way to illustrate a story, composed of one person or a few, the intent is to capture personality.

The question then is, how does the photographer manage to express creativity portrait after portrait? What approach can be used to elevate the work, to make it stand on its own? Here, Times’ photographers share their approach to recent portrait work.

Deputy Editor, Photography, Boyzell Hosey

Askia Muhammad Aquil, looks back on his life as a community activist, largely serving the St. Petersburg community. He is shown here outside of his office in Campbell Park.
Askia Muhammad Aquil, looks back on his life as a community activist, largely serving the St. Petersburg community. He is shown here outside of his office in Campbell Park. [ BOYZELL HOSEY | TIMES | Tampa Bay Times ]

“Capturing an effective environmental portrait is key. The goal is to portray as many visual clues to the subject’s personality as possible. For me, thinking about creating a successful portrait on the fly consists of three main things: good composition, good light and good sense of place. During these pandemic times, I’m always looking for a situation that I can execute outdoors. My favorite technique is to introduce a powerful strobe light that allows me to add dimension through lighting in broad daylight. I also tend to use a longer focal length lens to create a safe distance between me and the subject. I recently asked a subject if he would mind removing his mask and he responded with “Yes, as long as you’re six feet or more back.”

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John Pendygraft

Raymond Whitehurst, 93, and Vivian Whitehurst ,92, were married September 14, 1947. In all those years "We never miss a bedtime kiss - most of the time it's two or three," Raymond explains. Just before Christmas last year, Raymond was hospitalized. Vivian bought a stuffed animal at Walgreens (pictured). "I didn't want to be by myself. He filled up his side of the bed," Vivian explained.
Raymond Whitehurst, 93, and Vivian Whitehurst ,92, were married September 14, 1947. In all those years "We never miss a bedtime kiss - most of the time it's two or three," Raymond explains. Just before Christmas last year, Raymond was hospitalized. Vivian bought a stuffed animal at Walgreens (pictured). "I didn't want to be by myself. He filled up his side of the bed," Vivian explained. [ JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times ]

“Portraits can be shot with safe social distancing and are a chance to regularly practice the craftsmanship that goes into a good portrait. I’ve also found that it can be an opportunity to allow people more control over their story. A portrait set-up is a performance, especially compared to documentary style photojournalism. I feel like saying ‘OK. Lights, camera, action!’ But, embracing that, it is a way to give people the opportunity to make a conscious choice about how they want to perform their story. I am hoping it can be empowering.

“In this portrait, we didn’t ask for a cuddle and a warm moment. These two were married in 1947 and had never missed a bedtime kiss until Raymond was hospitalized last year. Vivian brought a teddy bear she purchased from Walgreens to fill his side of the bed when he was away. Under my ‘lights, camera, action’ setup, they chose how to move and what to do in a way that wouldn’t happen shooting documentary style.”

Read: When Vivian was 6, she met a cute boy named Ray. 86 years later, this is their story.

Ivy Ceballo

Salvador Cortes, 44, and his children Mateo, 5, Isabel, 7, and Areli, 12, pose for a portrait with the family's Chihuahuas, Firus, 8, and Mili, 3, outside their home in Lake Placid on Thursday, Feb. 11, 2021.
Salvador Cortes, 44, and his children Mateo, 5, Isabel, 7, and Areli, 12, pose for a portrait with the family's Chihuahuas, Firus, 8, and Mili, 3, outside their home in Lake Placid on Thursday, Feb. 11, 2021. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

“My approach to photographing the Cortes family was to keep it simple and capture them in their environment. The background for this image is in their front yard before sunset on an overcast evening, which made for subtle light. I think the most important and sometimes most challenging part of making a powerful portrait is to help our subjects feel and look comfortable during the experience of sharing themselves and their stories with us, our cameras and, ultimately, our readers.

“Before photographing Mr. Cortes, I got to know him over the phone the day prior to our meeting and learned about his children and the family’s routine following his regular work day. We planned to meet when he was going to pick up his son from daycare to capture a documentary moment, and then go to their home for a portrait. We ended up meeting outside their home first since our schedules changed, which I think helped the children feel more comfortable letting a double masked stranger point a camera in their direction. Mateo, the youngest of the Cortes home, was quick to introduce himself and the family’s chihuahuas.”

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Douglas Clifford

Florida Highway Patrol Corporal Tabarie Sullivan stands in the southbound easement of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge on Thursday, Dec. 17, 2020, in Hillsborough County where he says a majority of the suicide jumps occur each year.
Florida Highway Patrol Corporal Tabarie Sullivan stands in the southbound easement of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge on Thursday, Dec. 17, 2020, in Hillsborough County where he says a majority of the suicide jumps occur each year. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
A squirrel explores a fallen tree near Chris Wirt, 44, of Lutz, on Friday, Feb. 19, 2021, in Tarpon Springs. Wirt is the owner of AAAC Wildlife Removal of Tampa.
A squirrel explores a fallen tree near Chris Wirt, 44, of Lutz, on Friday, Feb. 19, 2021, in Tarpon Springs. Wirt is the owner of AAAC Wildlife Removal of Tampa. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

“Usually, I take pictures of real people doing real things. Portraits are tricky. They require me to control the scene, everything from lighting to thinking about how someone might hold their hands. Still, I want those images to feel authentic, so it’s also important to get out of the way. I ask the subjects to think about what they might say about themselves if they could speak through a picture. I’ve learned to embrace surprises. Often their faces reveal their stories.”

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Martha Asencio Rhine

Ms. Urley Williams, 69, is pictured in her bedroom. Ms. Williams has to leave her home at the Tampa Park Apartments since she learned the complex will be demolished. The rent of Ms. William's one-bedroom apartment is within her budget and she is aware there are not a lot of options. She is worried about her fate but is leaning on her faith and trying to remain positive, on Thursday, Sept. 24, 2020 in Tampa.
Ms. Urley Williams, 69, is pictured in her bedroom. Ms. Williams has to leave her home at the Tampa Park Apartments since she learned the complex will be demolished. The rent of Ms. William's one-bedroom apartment is within her budget and she is aware there are not a lot of options. She is worried about her fate but is leaning on her faith and trying to remain positive, on Thursday, Sept. 24, 2020 in Tampa. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

“As time progresses and we find ourselves doing portrait after portrait, I try to find opportunities to be creative. It can get tedious unless you’re constantly trying different things. This is when I might add artificial lighting or just use available natural light. I might use a wide-angle lens or a telephoto. I will use the person’s environment to enhance storytelling, or I might come in really close on their face if there’s something about their expression that merits a closeup look.

“For this portrait of Ms. Urley Williams, the story focused on her having to leave her home without a place to go. I felt I had to go inside and document her space. We both wore masks except for brief moments where she removed it, this portrait being one of them. I asked for her to stand by her bedroom chest because it was the most intimate of spaces. She took great pride in her clean, organized home. I liked how her toiletries lay neatly next to an open Bible, the warm light from the lamp, her reflection. I didn’t ask her to look away. In fact, she seemed to be only vaguely aware of me; she was focused on her worries. I could have lit this with a flash, but I felt the lamp and the light from the window created the feeling of warmth that says, ‘this is home.’”