By spending time with the people whose lives she documents, photographer Laura Pannack produces emotive work with uncommon openness and honesty.

By spending time with the people whose lives she documents, photographer Laura Pannack produces emotive work with uncommon openness and honesty.

People often point out the intimacy of my photos. All my projects stem from an interest in social behaviour; I want to explore why people act and feel the way they do. But in order to understand my subjects, I need to immerse myself in their way of life, so I often place myself in a vulnerable position to show my sitter that trust works both ways.

My subject matter is always real, but I don’t abide by the rules of documentary photography. I always strive to present my subjects in an honest light – whether I’m standing back and observing or directing what I see. Either way, access requires time and patience and I can sometimes spend months or even years on a project that never materialises.

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For Our Lives – a project commissioned by Save the Children that shows an alternative view of British families living in poverty – I spent months travelling back and forth to Glasgow getting to know Ashleigh, who became a mother at fifteen. During that period, I just sat and shot what was happening around me. Young British Naturists, on the other hand, was an entirely different experience.

I knew that, in order to gain the trust of the young naturists I spent time with, I needed to have a genuine respect and understanding of their interest. I wanted to experience their world, even if it meant getting naked too. Many of the scenes from this project took hours to execute and were based on sketches, but it was an opportunity to experiment and I was lucky to have patient and understanding subjects. For Young Love, a personal project that explores the nature of teen relationships, I spent time with young couples and found it fun.

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Shooting is not just my way of venting my thoughts or responding to what I see; it’s about challenging myself. I am curious to know my limits and what I can learn. Technically, I aim to learn about the craft of image-making. Philosophically, I aim to learn how to be a better person, and why people behave and feel the way they do.

The burden of being a photographer is not only that your images will be judged but that it’s easy to forget the impact they’ll have on your subjects’ lives. When behind the lens I sometimes only see colours, shapes and textures as if I were painting. But it’s vital to remember what’s important in the moment: my subject. I will always be an outsider and with that dynamic comes a diverse web of ethical dilemmas. The shorter the amount of time I spend with my subjects, the more ridden with guilt I feel. All I can do is try to collaborate with those I photograph and allow them to guide the work.

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Photography is not just an art form, it’s a way of communicating. I could always relate to photographers who were heavily criticised for shooting graphic or difficult imagery, like Kevin Carter who won a Pulitzer for his coverage of the famine in Sudan. But in that moment only you, the photographer, know whether you are taking the frame to deliver a message or not. One photographer who did this incredibly well was Tim Hetherington, who died shooting the war in Libya. He could balance a well-composed, beautiful image and somehow use photography as a tool to deliver a message.

I have never underestimated the power of photography. We need to take responsibility for our image-making, but how it’s interpreted is beyond our control. An image is successful if it creates emotion, both when experienced and when reviewed.

Check out more of Laura Pannack’s work on her website

This article originally appeared in Huck 41 – The Documentary Photography Special I. Order a copy in the Huck Shop  or subscribe today to make sure you don’t miss another issue.

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