Moving portraits from Mexico

“She will let you film her but only if you buy her an ice cream,” my local interpreter said as the toothless octogenarian herb vendor grinned at me and the team. This was refreshing, I had spent most of the morning trying to convince the sellers at the Zaachila market in the State of Oaxaca to capture their portraits with mixed results. A good few were convinced that my work would steal their souls and so they politely declined. The toothless abuela it turned out was wonderfully mercantile about her soul. A few moments later, equipped with a dulche de leche helado, she was showing off her remaining incisors and eyeing me with an even mix of suspicion and amusement. 

Amusement possibly because I was the only person not there to buy my weekly supply of vegetables. Rather than with jute bags, I was armed with a camera and a small team and I was in Zaachila to experiment with an idea I’ve had playing on my mind for a while. I started my photographic adventure with street portraits and earlier this year decided to step it up a notch and see if the approach I use for still photographs would also work with moving portraits. When an opportunity to visit Mexico, one of my favourite places in the world, came up, I immediately hatched a plan to shoot a series of moving portraits at the local markets. A couple of years ago, on a whistle-stop tour for UnitedHealth Global I was totally mesmerised by the buzz and the madness of Mexican markets. They are a blur of vibrant colour, a fiesta of smells and flavours and a cacophony of sounds. From healers advertising the miraculous powers of moringa juice, to mariachi bands selling one song at a time, I knew that I would be back to create a series of portraits that would highlight the people behind this dizzying experience. 

To give my filming experiment the technical support it called for I contacted Canon who kindly lent me the perfect camera for the job – a 5D IV: brilliantly easy to use it shoots stills beautifully and at the flick of a switch can also capture stunning movies too. The next challenge was finding a local fixer and interpreter. After a few hours on the the global photo grape vine I found Eugenio, an experienced guide who was ready to meet us in the early hours of the morning to take us to the lesser known markets in the small communities of Oaxaca state. Will the markets be as good as I hoped? Will the locals want to take part? Will my idea work?

I suspected my usual approach to street portraiture would work with moving images just as well as it does with stills, so was eager to put it to the test. I might not be after the sitters’ souls, but I am always looking for a short, intense interaction with strangers when shooting street portraits. And if an image can tell you more than a thousand words, a moving image can tell you tomes. The idea was to extract the heroes of the market from their busy surroundings. How many times do you stop at a market to consider the people around you? The explosion of colours, the exotic fruit, the dangerous looking kitchen implements, the fire pits – all of this distracts from the protagonists of the show. I wanted to highlight them and not their surroundings – calm, composed, going quietly about their business as the market collectively rushes around. I was after a few seconds of their attention, so that anyone watching the moving portraits would feel like they are joining the Oaxaqueños for a moment to feel the morning heat, smell the charcoal from the tortilla ovens and enjoy the taste of chewed tobacco just like the spring onion seller was when I photographed her.

The backdrop you see in a number of the portraits was one that immediately caught my attention. The tiny Mixteca woman selling it was at first reluctant to take part, but seeing how delighted her daughter was when we approached, she agreed. She posed with her own handiwork as the background and I liked its pattern and colour so much that I bought the rug to use it as an impromptu studio in the arches of the local council building.

Before you ask, I can tell you that I don’t speak Spanish. But I find that it only matters up until a point. The initial ask is easy: the smiles, the handshakes – all are universal. The next stage is the tricky one and I relied on Eugenio’s mastery of the local language and customs – he did most of the bartering, swapping a few minutes of the vendors’ time for a few photographs, reassuring the sitters that no soul will be harmed. Of course sometimes I needed to buy a handful of produce in return for the portrait. Then it was all in my hands – a fragile agreement based on trust allowing me to enter the sitters’ world for a few seconds. The language of photography is universal. The sitters pose, I help them out. Watch me, look here, look there, turn after “tres”. Their whole attention is mine for that brief moment, and my attention is theirs, undivided. The camera connects us. And then, a few weeks later anyone who happens upon my moving portraits is able to join the vendors in Oaxaca for an ice cream.

This is certainly not my last foray creating moving portraits. I had tons of fun creating them and already look forward to making more when the opportunity comes. I only wish there was a way of allowing you to smell the fresh mango as you watch the Oaxaqueños.

See the full gallery of moving portraits here: LINK

See the full gallery of moving portraits here: LINK

 - Adam Kay – Promotional images for Twas the Nightshift Before Christmas - Charlie Clift

Adam Kay – Promotional images for Twas the Nightshift Before Christmas

It was great to meet this dry witty ex-doctor last time I photographed him in 2017 for the magazine – at the time I don’t think either of us realised he would go on to sell over 1.5 million copies of his book “This is Going to Hurt” and have it translated into 35 languages. Having now read that book I can’t think of one more deserving of the success – it is not only hilarious but also highlights the incredible work NHS staff do every day. Of course, as the book is about Adam’s days as a junior doctor the first time I photographed him I covered him in blood. This time I was photographing him to promote his new book “Twas the Nightshift Before Christmas” and he arrived with a custom set of red scrubs that had Santa Claus fur detailing. The photos were shot for his PR...

Rob Brydon - The Sunday Times Magazine - Rob Brydon – The Sunday Times Magazine - Charlie Clift

Rob Brydon – The Sunday Times Magazine

What a lovely man Rob was to meet. He dived into our collaboration, telling me which ideas he liked and didn’t like, taking my suggestions, bettering them and giving me something extra. We chatted away all the time, and laughed a lot too. And yes, he did do his little man in a box voice – to the great delight of the small child who was on set accompanying Rob’s publicist. Hit up the link to read Charlotte Edwards interview⁠: LINK Big thanks to Russ for choosing me for this fun shoot, and to Olly Mayhall for assisting so beautifully.

 - Luciana Berger – The Sunday Times Magazine - Charlie Clift

Luciana Berger – The Sunday Times Magazine

‘Six people have been convicted of the racially aggravated harassment of Berger; two have gone to prison and there are more cases pending. It’s shocking to hear the stories that the kind and caring Lib Dems hopeful Luciana Berger tells about her experiences as an MP. Read the full interview in The Sunday Times Magazine by Caroline Scott: LINK

 - Oaxaca – Conde Nast Traveller - Charlie Clift

Oaxaca – Conde Nast Traveller

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John McDonnell - The Sunday Times Magazine - John McDonnell – The Sunday Times Magazine - Charlie Clift

John McDonnell – The Sunday Times Magazine

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 - Hideo Kojima and Nicolas Winding Refn – BAFTA Photography Collection - Charlie Clift

Hideo Kojima and Nicolas Winding Refn – BAFTA Photography Collection

Hideo Kojima is regarded as the first auteur of the gaming world, he is lauded for his Metal Gear series. I photographed him for BAFTA on the release day of his much anticipated new game Death Stranding. Alongside Kojima I also photographed the film director Nicolas Winding Refn, who appears in the new game as one of the characters. I started the shoot by showing each of them the sketches and references I wanted to work from. They both got totally involved, each doing their best to create the shapes and feelings I was after. It was such a pleasure to collaborate with them. Massive thanks for Claire and Jordan at BAFTA for making this to happen, and to Olly Mayhall and Ollie Tomlinson for assisting so beautifully.

 - Jay Rayner – The Observer Food Monthly - Charlie Clift

Jay Rayner – The Observer Food Monthly

What does a food critic cook for his Christmas dinner? It’s a question Jay Rayner gets every year in the lead up to the big event, people just can’t help but ask. So he wrote and article about his formula for the perfect Christmas meal. Find out Jay’s formula here: LINK

Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer - The Sunday Times Magazine - Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer – The Sunday Times Magazine - Charlie Clift

Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer – The Sunday Times Magazine

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 - Home Schooling – The Sunday Times Magazine - Charlie Clift

Home Schooling – The Sunday Times Magazine

One night, after the museum closed, we descended on the Horniman in South London. Surrounded by stuffed animals and skeletons we set up our lights, the building creaking as it settled around us. It was quite the stage for Antonella and her daughter Bethesda. We were illustrating home schooling for an article Antonella has written in the Sunday Times Magazine. One of the main advantages of home schooling is that they visit museums, galleries and other places regularly as part of Bethesda’s education – and the hall of skeletons in the Horniman seemed liked the perfect example of this. Massive thanks to Russ for finding such a great location, to Emma Leon for the great hair and make up, and to Antonella and Bethesda for being totally into the shoot.

Grace Warwick - Tortoise - Grace Warwick campaigns against ageism – Tortoise - Charlie Clift

Grace Warwick campaigns against ageism – Tortoise

“Every society needs its elders, and we deny our need for them at our peril.” Grace Warwick suffered a serious and life-threatening reaction while dyeing her hair in 2012. When she started to let it grow out she ‘discovered quite quickly that many people thought that it wasn’t okay’. People tried to “save” her repeatedly and felt able to comment openly on her choice to let her grey hair show. ‘On a particularly blustery school run, a male acquaintance asked me when I was going to cut my hair off as “no one wants to see grey hair flying in the wind.”’ Grace now campaigns as a pro age activist. It was wonderful photographing Grace for this article, celebrating her grey hair and discussing our obsession with youth. You can read or listen to Grace’s fascinating article on Tortoise now: LINK Massive thanks to Jon Jones for the commission and...