Mute Shoot


20 Monday 20th September 2010
In what little experience of photoshoots I've accrued, from portraits of the shocking bands I've been in and sympathy model gigs for from booker friends helping me out of one destitute hole or another for Japanese Paul Smith subsidiaries, it’s always been a deeply uncomfortable and awkward experience. I don't photo well, and that's an understatement.
As anyone who's seen Blow Up before will know, a photographer's ability to engage with their subject, build a relationship, put them at east and direct them is crucial to any good shot. I remember a photographer friend doing a casting for a shoot at my pad once. After I'd got over the procession of leggy young nymphs arrayed around my lounge when I came down for breakfast, I marveled at how his job basically involved learning how to speak to the world's most beautiful women. Even graduation photographers ask you to smile or turn a little to the left in producing those cringe inspiring images for grandparents' proud mantelpieces the country over. But what happens if you remove that dynamic almost completely?
Which is precisely what emerging photographer and music video director Martin Zähringer decided to find out when he had surgery on his throat and couldn't speak for a week. Zähringer's Mute Shoot involved inviting friends and neighbours into his warehouse studio to get their portraits snapped. Once ushered in front of the backdrop and under lights, Zähringer's direction amounted to little more than grins, winks or the occasional shrug of the shoulder. 
What results is an intriguing experiment in the character of his subjects - without direction it's entirely up to the subject to pose and compose themselves, offering a rare glimpse of each subject as they are in themselves. It helps that some of the great and good of East London's fixtures Zähringer papped include The Mystery Jet's Blaine Harrison and YBA Tim Noble. Don't Panic posed awkwardly under Z's lens before quizzing him over iChat about the benefits of shooting mute. 
What was actually wrong with your throat?
I had a polyp on my vocal chords the size of a peanut and it made me sound like I had been smoking for 80 not just 15 years.
Like Dot Cotton?
Yes, just like her, only less refined in tone. She's got more practice.
It's certainly sexy.
Thanks will, I've got a bit of a thing for you too.
I meant Dot... but moving on.... you couldn't speak for a week? Where did the idea for the Mute Shoot come from?
Well, I couldn't speak for a week after they'd drugged me and removed it. The plan was to watch films and read books. Although I know watching films and reading books is not wasting time, at the time it feels like it. I had to find something to entertain myself with and produce work at the same time. The idea is really how people would act towards the camera in such an intimate setup, if the person behind the camera can't direct them at all, apart from pointing fingers and raising eyebrows. Maybe it did or did not help to capture something about them that wouldn't have come out had I been speaking.
How different was the experience of shooting them? Was there anything you were looking to get or was it more of an experiment?
It was a mixture of things. An experiment on one hand, the trademark of a class A attention seeker on the other. It served two purposes, I knew I was going to be sick of being in my house all day and it turned into an experiment from there.
It wasn't harder to shoot. There is something quite nice about losing the pressure of having to tell someone what to do. The relationship between snapper and subject changed, I was in control but they had to make a step towards being what they thought I wanted to shoot. I just wanted to take a few shots to see how people behaved differently in front of the camera with a mute.
Who were the people that came down?
It was very mixed. I started with friends, how then brought other friends, then some people approached me on line after someone blogged about the project, random drunks that ended up at my house, etc. My next project will be dragging randoms off the street into my studio, maybe my answer to that dickhead video could be a loud celebration of everything London Fields.
Who's been the most interesting person to shoot in this?
Tim Noble, I have no idea why he was in my flat but I shot him while he was here.
I guess he was passing through. He looks at the lens like he's found something in there, but I think he was just really pissed.
In people you've known really well, have you found something different or new in them shooting them this way?
Well, when you shoot people this way their awkwardness brings out a side to them that you wouldn't necessarily get when you direct them. It just amplified the parts I already new about them and made these much more prominent.
What are you planning to do with the images now?
I'd like to exhibit the images and am looking into putting a show together. I've been talking to a few people about this will hopefully get this of the ground soon.

For more information on Martin Zähringer see his website and blog.

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