Shea Kirk’s Ruby (Left View), a black and white portrait of friend Emma “Ruby” Armstrong-Porter, has an undeniable tenderness, beauty and vulnerability. But as this year’s winning entry in the National Photographic Portrait Prize (NPPP), it offers much more than aesthetic and technical accomplishment. Kirk’s non-traditional process also subverts the typical power dynamics of photographer and subject.

“I’ve been a finalist, and always look forward to making the pilgrimage and spending time with other photographers, celebrating photography and community and the importance of the portrait,” Kirk says. “The weight of this work is about the collaborative process and what Ruby’s views, feelings and voice are within that.”

Ruby (Left View) is half of a pair of portraits from Kirk's series Vantages, an ongoing six-year project featuring two portraits taken simultaneously from two different vantage points (the other portrait in this set is Ruby (Right View)).

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“Within photography there’s this idea of getting the one ‘right angle’ to display or reproduce as a document,” Kirk says. “Vantages flips that notion. Multiple angles rather than just homing in on one.

“When I look at this work, I see a portrait of Ruby, I see them as a whole person … an honest record of a friend of mine. A lot of the time, a portrait is reduced to face and hands, but the body is the record of our being. There’s a strength and power in being photographed as you are – markers of wealth, class, time and era disappear when you remove those external layers of cloth.”

Kirk uses a dual large-format set-up, shooting from slightly different perspectives to make a stereoscopic pair – emulating the natural vision of the left and right eyes.

“For me, they are complete together as a pair, as separate side-by-side images, as a single view, or combined as a three-dimensional experience,” Kirk says.

The NPPP prize includes $30,000 in cash from the National Portrait Gallery and an additional $20,000 of Canon equipment. While it’s a practical boost, Kirk hasn’t had time for the big win to set in or to make plans.

“I’m just going to keep doing what I’ve done,” he says. “The prize will definitely help. It’s been really lovely to share this moment of both recognition from industry and peers, and the celebration of portrait-making and community.”

During his sittings, which can take between three and nine hours, Kirk establishes a collaborative relationship with his subjects – some are strangers, others long-time friends. The intimacy of the session gives the sitter an agency traditionally absent from photography.

“Inherently, photography as a medium was from a place of privilege,” Kirk says. “It wasn’t accessible. The people who held the power chose who was photographed. It wasn’t viewed as a collaboration, just a cold scientific process recording people of high standing, or people who were less privileged from a position of power: recording a spectacle, or specimens, rather than just being human.

“For me, having an open dialogue is really important, making sure everyone feels safe, comfortable and heard, setting really clear boundaries … so that the exchange comes from a place of open communication.

“I remember the shoot really well, working with Ruby, a really amazing artist and good friend … It is such an easy process to completely lose yourself in.”

It’s a slow and steady process – not a shutter-stream of rapid images, but a deliberate, single moment.

“We work through every composition and way of being in the space, ensuring each frame we capture feels honest and true,” Kirk says. “If you’re in overdrive, you’re going to catch things between states of being, rather than conscious, quiet, still, intentional moments.”

The National Photographic Portrait Prize is on show at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra until October 2.
You can vote for your favourite work online in the People’s Choice Award here.

This article is produced by Broadsheet in partnership with the National Portrait Gallery.