How to Connect With Your Subjects and Be Your Own Creative Director

By Guest Author - 6 min read

Chèrmelle Edwards is a Los Angeles and New York based writer, photographer and storyteller. She documents coffee as a culture on her webzine The Coffeetographer. In this guest post, she shares some of her best tips on connecting with your subjects, finding your creativity after a slump, and being your own creative director.

I remember the first time I wanted to pick up a camera as ‘the coffeetographer.’ The sun was out; the palm trees were in a public dance and the people watching outside of a Venice coffee shop was supremely good. The people looked like they were in a silent movie, except I could hear the faint utterings from their lips, sense a gentility in their being, and the staccato sequence that accompanied their alternate movements of hand gestures to hand meets coffee carafe. It sounds romantic; I know - it was romantic.

This is when I knew that I wanted to document people as part of my visual work. Up until then, my work focused on language and its evidence through writing. But this contrast, opened the way to the realization that I knew I had to buy a camera, and did so six months later, upon leaving my corporate job and taking a three month trip to South America.

While I was traveling, the impulse to look as an outsider with the feeling of a local and capture humans being human, brought me such satisfaction. When I returned to the states, I didn’t read books on how to photograph a person; I didn’t take a photography class on the semantics of an image, an online workshop or even read a how-to.

“I just went out, eyes and heart wide open and inspired to document.”

Here I am nearly eight years later, still photographing people, finding ways to become better at being a creative, and now charting an even more intentional path with my work. Here are some tips in each of these categories that I’d like to share with you on my journey to living the life I love, finding ways to manage the gap in knowledge and failing in front of everyone while becoming the director of self.

Part I. Tips on connecting with your subjects and photographing people.

I can count on maybe four palms how many times in the last seven years people have said ‘no’ to my taking a photo of them, which is roughly once per year. And perhaps why when it does happen I’m so taken aback while also respecting their right to say no.

How do I capture my captures?

First. Before hitting the pavement for street style, a project, or documenting a person in their everyday lifestyle, I prepare my heart with my why for photographing the days’ work.

Knowing why I’m driven to document through images helps me to be centered and in alignment with the self-imposed responsibility I have, to capture a moment and make an image as an imprint of that specific time - through my eyes.

Second. Photograph in a space or context that means something to you. We should photograph subjects that do something for us. When we do, this will provide a deep underlying emotion to our work, making it more than just about a number of clicks, fulfilling a shot list or meeting a deadline.

“When personal meaning is attached to the work paired with intention, this forges a connection to the bigger picture of doing work that matters - our work.”

Third. Engage your subject. Whether your subject is a human or something inanimate, all things have energy. If your subject is animate as in a human, find the right engagement that you can have that allows for synergy to happen between you and them.

As I understand that my subjects were somewhere before being with me and will be somewhere after, reminds me that they have a life and that I can make an impression on it in the time we are together - for the good or converse. This helps me to make the time enjoyable for us both and to live in the moments between our eyes and the shutter. Tip: asking a question around food helps because food is a great connector.

Part II.Tips on finding your creativity again after a slump.

For the past two years I can say that I have struggled with being a photographer. Somewhere in that time the gap between the work I wanted to make and the work I actually was making really manifested itself to me as a gap, a problem I didn’t know how to identify. Thankfully, listening to Ira Glass, Seth Godin and Abraham Hicks on repeat really help me to fight through it, know that it wasn’t permanent, and that for every problem there is an answer, and even better - a solution.

Everything kind of came to a roaring ‘so what are you going to do about it?’ while still publishing work but not loving it, when I experienced four deaths between the end of 2017 and the beginning of 2018 in rapid succession without the least bit of expectation.

I was then propelled into a space of deep thought on realities I knew but often act with specific knowledge on: life isn’t promised, tomorrow isn’t guaranteed and time is always fleeting, even if we are so fortunate to a person who considers themselves deeply present. My inner dialogue shifted to not trying to bridge the gap but fix it. Instead of still creating and publishing for the sake of not doing it, I found myself.

1. Slow down with intention and find the gap - the impetus for the pause, slump etc.

2. Find an outlet to express the feelings for the pause, connect with the feeling of joy before the pause -hopefully there is one - and use it as a memory to build new joy with what you’ve experienced.

3. Use the self-awareness you’ve gained and let it be a buoy that propels you out of that place into an energetic space that fosters you living from gratitude and purpose.

When I took the time to connect with what was causing a halt in me, and thus a hesitation in creating, the self-awareness was like being baptized into a new religion. The discipline returned and the expression magnified.

Part III. Tips on being your own creative director.

I believe we are born creative. Different aspects of being creative can come easy to us or be challenging. Because I am a very in the moment, off the cuff, excitable person - especially when I meet kindred energy - slowing down has always and will always be a challenge for me. However, now that I’m in the space of creating with deeper intentionality and being the creative director of my work and my companies, I know it is a skill I must master.

My process now includes:

1. Visual research. I now look up where I’m going especially if its a cafe, coffee shop or interior space mitigated by one of my main subjects which is coffee and its culture. I look for lines, angles, and sources of light to understand how I might want to relate to the space photographically.

“Doing visual research prepares me and as it can you, to marry craft with spontaneity.”

2. Principles of photography. It is said you have to first know the rules to break them. Coming from years of shooting organically, I now know part of my gap was, not fully understanding what the rules were and how they and/or the breaking of them made a pleasing image. I spend time each week studying a point on the craft of photography and consciously slowing down, while in the midst of creating to employ these tools specifically. It helps and the work will show it!

3. Scheduling and to-do lists. I’m a planner - I actually love the act of making a list and jotting things down with pen and paper. Additionally, I have to have multiple schedules for all my roles as a writer for my webzine; as director of my photography work, as content creator and social strategist for my clients along with my personal projects and life. In order not to get overwhelmed or habitually forget what’s important, having a regimen monthly, weekly and daily allows me to be disciplined and productive where it counts. Ultimately this leaves me feeling accomplished which fuels many reasons for gratitude.

“In short, find a system, stay organized and be big picture oriented - the latter will make room for the small steps needed to keep your eye on your goals.”

Visit Chèrmelle’s EyeEm profile or find her on Instagram to see more of her stunning work.