Don’t forget: photograph their hands!

The work-worn hands and tattooed arms of ship's engineer, George Currie. © Rob Walls 2010

As a very young photographer working on London’s Fleet Street in the 60s, I was lucky enough to be engaged as a retained freelancer to United Press International. It was at a time when colour supplements were burgeoning and because I had more experience shooting colour than the staffers, I began to pull regular feature assignments targeted to this new market.

Charlie Cowan, UPI’s features editor was a hard task master. No matter what you laid out on the light-box, he always seemed to be able to find some gap in your picture story; something you hadn’t thought to photograph. His eye and his judgment were superb and I made it a personal challenge to produce stories that he could not find fault with. It would be the rare occasion when he was totally satisfied. I was very lucky to have Charlie as my mentor.

After one story briefing, just as I was about to set out on the shoot, he called from his office, “…and don’t forget to photograph their hands!” Sometimes, when I threw a set of pictures up on the light-box, Charlie would say “but, you didn’t photograph their hands!”. He drummed this mantra into me until it became second nature for me to include a picture of someone’s hands.

He was right, of course. You can tell a lot about someone from their hands…and a picture of hands is always a useful image for a layout artist to break the visual rhythm of a story about a person, while still adding information about the subject.

A few weeks ago, it was with Charlie’s mantra still echoing in my ears, that after photographing Scots-born, ship’s engineer, George Currie for my documentation of work (This Working Life), I went back to photograph his work-worn hands against the background of his welding scorched sweater. I told him the story of Charlie Cowan and his advice to me as a young photographer. As I finished my explanation, George pushed up his sleeves, saying in his broad accent, “This’ud be whut ye want, then.”

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4 Comments

Filed under Australian, Autobiography, Biography, documentary photography, Photographer, Photojournalism, portraits, Rob Walls

4 responses to “Don’t forget: photograph their hands!

  1. Good story, Rob!

    After eyes hands are the first things I notice about a person I meet for the first time. Somehow a combination of these 4 features give me a good first impression of what they are like.

    Roel

    • Thanks Roel. To some extent, I think people have lost the ability to assess people in this way. Photographers though, in my experience, tend to be more observant of character than most. So I’ve always got it in front of me on this project, I’m going to print Charlie’s advice and tape it to the dashboard of my ute…

  2. It reminds me of my old photo editor at the first newspaper I worked for in Germany.

    His advise had nothing to do with photography. He just kept pressing the point I should only ever seriously fall in love with a woman who had furniture.

    I always thought that was cute, and strangely the woman I then lived with for 20 years had all her own stuff.

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