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A Tampa Bay Times photographer’s guide to taking portraits

Photojournalist Doug Clifford on how he packs personality into portraits, sometimes with only minutes to spare.
Julie De La Cruz, 2, plays in the yard of her home where only two days before she witnessed the fatal shooting of her mother.
Julie De La Cruz, 2, plays in the yard of her home where only two days before she witnessed the fatal shooting of her mother. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published May 18
Updated May 19
Paige Tucker, 31, of St. Petersburg, is the CEO of Be Your Best You, LLC., based out of the Breakthrough Excelerator, a membership-based entrepreneurial program for women in Largo. Tucker opened the small business incubator and workspace with the intention of providing women with the training, marketing and professional development skills they need to grow their small business.
Paige Tucker, 31, of St. Petersburg, is the CEO of Be Your Best You, LLC., based out of the Breakthrough Excelerator, a membership-based entrepreneurial program for women in Largo. Tucker opened the small business incubator and workspace with the intention of providing women with the training, marketing and professional development skills they need to grow their small business.

Portraits are momentary, organic stitches in time. The pictures are vulnerable agreements to share someone’s truth; complicated when meeting a subject for the first time, with little planning.

Before I start shooting I’m asking myself, what is the story? Once at a destination I’m scanning for colors and geometry – is there a pool of natural light or am I adding light? Should the subject sit or stand?

These decisions take minutes.

While I’m shuffling gear, conversation shifts to a subject’s story. I listen, I share. Maybe we’re simply talking about the weather but sometimes it’s deeper than that – swapping stories about our backgrounds, or exchanging quips about our kids. It’s these moment where subjects decide if they are going to trust me.

Norma Alcantar, 50, of Tampa, stands near a Prickly Pear cactus (opuntia ficus indica) at the USF botanical gardens on Tuesday, May 4, 2021, in Tampa.
Norma Alcantar, 50, of Tampa, stands near a Prickly Pear cactus (opuntia ficus indica) at the USF botanical gardens on Tuesday, May 4, 2021, in Tampa.

The picture of Norma Alcantar was a hustle. Alcantar, a professor at the University of South Florida, had an early-afternoon eye exam and I was up against a 2 p.m. deadline. Despite having her eyes dilated she met me on a sunny day at the USF botanical gardens for a portrait next to a Prickly Pear cactus. The setting was essential since Alcantar was inducted into the Florida Inventors Hall of Fame with 22 patents for her work using cactus plants for water filtration, something she learned from her grandmother who grew up on a Mexican farm.

I quickly realized she and I had both recently turned 50. I shared a laugh with her about “the big number” and we made a handful of pictures.

Related: USF professor who harnessed the power of cactuses is a top Florida inventor

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.

I met Florida Highway Patrol Corporal Tabarie Sullivan at the southbound easement of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge where people have taken their life by jumping. I was escorted to the location by the FHP and given a few minutes to make the picture. I asked the FHP escort to hold a single strobe pointed at Sullivan. I made six pictures while leaning over the edge of the bridge. I was nervous and did not look down.

Sullivan has patrolled the bridge for about three years and interacted with roughly 10 people who were threatening to jump. We talked briefly of his heroism before ascending the bridge together. He was very humble.

Related: Skyway bridge suicide barrier may finally stop the ripples of loss

Lindsey Bergo Rachel, 28, of Palm Harbor, teaches student her seven-month old student Lennon Smith how to hold her breath at Smith's home in Tarpon Springs
Lindsey Bergo Rachel, 28, of Palm Harbor, teaches student her seven-month old student Lennon Smith how to hold her breath at Smith's home in Tarpon Springs

Lindsey Bergo Rachel was teaching her seven-month-old student how to hold her breath underwater during a private swimming lesson, when we met. The story was about Bergo’s business, Little Inks Swimming, which provides mobile swim lessons. We talked about Rachel’s background as a swim team coach and nanny. I have three young children so we connected on the importance of learning to swim.

“Not only am I teaching children how to save their own lives, I’m giving the parents peace of mind,” Rachel said. “We forgot how smart children are at such a young age. We can teach them the skills, you just have to believe in it.”

I took a camera underwater and made a series of pictures while Rachel swam with the child.

Other portraits by Douglas Clifford

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 ]
Jackie Mallozzi, 71, of Safety Harbor, left, helped Skip Meadows, 79, of Safety Harbor, find a coronavirus vaccine in Pasco County recently when reservations to get the shot(s) in Pinellas County were hard to find. Mallozzi is among a group of Pinellas seniors is helping register fellow seniors for the coronavirus vaccine.
Jackie Mallozzi, 71, of Safety Harbor, left, helped Skip Meadows, 79, of Safety Harbor, find a coronavirus vaccine in Pasco County recently when reservations to get the shot(s) in Pinellas County were hard to find. Mallozzi is among a group of Pinellas seniors is helping register fellow seniors for the coronavirus vaccine.

Related: Hispanics are the most eager for vaccines, survey says — but face obstacles

Longtime Tampa Bay radio personality, Jack Harris, 78, stands in the boneyard of retired radio vehicles at the iHeartMedia live broadcast station on Monday, Sept. 14, 2020, in Tampa. He had just wrapped up the AM Tampa Bay radio show for NewsRadio 970 WFLA.
Longtime Tampa Bay radio personality, Jack Harris, 78, stands in the boneyard of retired radio vehicles at the iHeartMedia live broadcast station on Monday, Sept. 14, 2020, in Tampa. He had just wrapped up the AM Tampa Bay radio show for NewsRadio 970 WFLA.
Misael De La Cruz, 50, left, and his daughter, Julie De La Cruz, 2, stand in the back yard of their home at 8918 Carmen Lane in Port Richey on Monday, June 30, 2020, where Julie's mother, 40-year-old Bonnie Figueroa-Ortiz, was killed Saturday after exchanging gunfire with deputies, according to the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office. Figueroa-Ortiz fired first, the agency said, and deputies fired back, striking her once. Misael said Julie witnessed the shooting.
Misael De La Cruz, 50, left, and his daughter, Julie De La Cruz, 2, stand in the back yard of their home at 8918 Carmen Lane in Port Richey on Monday, June 30, 2020, where Julie's mother, 40-year-old Bonnie Figueroa-Ortiz, was killed Saturday after exchanging gunfire with deputies, according to the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office. Figueroa-Ortiz fired first, the agency said, and deputies fired back, striking her once. Misael said Julie witnessed the shooting.

Portraits taken for Targeted, a Tampa Bay Times investigation.

Dalanea Taylor, 20, with her two-year-old twins, Liberty and Freedom, at their home on Thursday, June 18, 2020, in New Port Richey. Dalanea is among a list of Pasco County residents being monitored by Pasco Sheriff’s deputies as part of the intelligence led policing program.
Dalanea Taylor, 20, with her two-year-old twins, Liberty and Freedom, at their home on Thursday, June 18, 2020, in New Port Richey. Dalanea is among a list of Pasco County residents being monitored by Pasco Sheriff’s deputies as part of the intelligence led policing program.
From left: Anthony McDougall, 17, Tammy Heilman, 45, Izabella Zander, 8, and Zenia Zander, 11, in front of the family's home on Thursday, July 9, 2020, in Holiday. Heilman, whose sons Anthony and Donnie McDougall were on a list of 1,000 people being monitored by Pasco Sheriff's deputies as part of the intelligence led policing program, said was arrested and served spent 76 days in jail as a result of her interactions with deputies.
From left: Anthony McDougall, 17, Tammy Heilman, 45, Izabella Zander, 8, and Zenia Zander, 11, in front of the family's home on Thursday, July 9, 2020, in Holiday. Heilman, whose sons Anthony and Donnie McDougall were on a list of 1,000 people being monitored by Pasco Sheriff's deputies as part of the intelligence led policing program, said was arrested and served spent 76 days in jail as a result of her interactions with deputies.
Lorenzo Gary, 17, stands in front of his home on Thursday, June 18, 2020, in Port Richey. Lorenzo is on a list of 1,000 people being monitored by Pasco Sheriff's deputies as part of the intelligence led policing program.
Lorenzo Gary, 17, stands in front of his home on Thursday, June 18, 2020, in Port Richey. Lorenzo is on a list of 1,000 people being monitored by Pasco Sheriff's deputies as part of the intelligence led policing program.
Former Pasco County Sheriff's Office Capt. James Steffens, left, stands with his attorney, John McGuire, of Clearwater, on Friday, June 26, 2020, at McGuire's office in Clearwater. Steffens resigned from the department in 2018.
Former Pasco County Sheriff's Office Capt. James Steffens, left, stands with his attorney, John McGuire, of Clearwater, on Friday, June 26, 2020, at McGuire's office in Clearwater. Steffens resigned from the department in 2018.