Gabrielle Motola is a portrait and social documentary photographer and writer with a background in motion pictures, photography and psychology.
We spoke to Gabrielle about how her own life events shaped her photographic journey as she put our full-frame mirrorless SIGMA fp L camera to the test.
When did your photographic journey start?
My journey began on my thirteenth birthday when my mum bought me a Minolta x700. I had no idea how to use it, but my dad was a keen photographer and had a massive collection of Time-Life books all about the technical aspects of photography. At first, it went straight over my head. Although I experimented with the camera, I didn’t have much luck exposing my photographs properly.
I chose to study psychology and film (motion picture) at university. It wasn’t until I had completed my freshman year in college that I decided to enrol in the fall photography course. I wanted to be a cinematographer, but the film program didn’t offer any such course. So, I signed up for stills to learn more about lighting and composition.
That summer before my sophomore year, I went to France with my girlfriend for a month. It was my first time in Europe, and I was blown away. By this time, I’d figured out how to expose film. When I returned to school in the fall with more than 20 rolls of film, I got stuck in learning how to develop them. The first time I saw an image from that summer come up in that glowing red tray, I was hooked.
Your work focuses on portraits of people from all walks of life. What are you looking for when selecting your subjects?
Human behaviour and emotions fascinate me. Emotions are fundamental to being human and living a fully informed and balanced life. I look for feelings on people’s faces and seek out what I call ‘open faces’, who haven’t forgotten that we are all still children at heart. I believe we are all beautiful in our own way. We are all creations, and we are all creative. We are conditioned to hide our inner child through our educational systems, society, social and mass media influences, and our families. And so, as we grow older, some of us lose touch with a crucial part of ourselves. Picasso expresses the essence of this beautifully. “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.”
How has your background in motion pictures and psychology shaped your work?
Photography is therapeutic. Psychology has helped me understand the mind and human behaviour in greater detail. It has given me something to make work about. My cinematic background has strengthened my understanding of story structure and helped me be more decisive when selecting photographs. It has also supported and changed the way I perceive and express colour. My work centres around communication, storytelling and ultimately, empathy. How we process information and shape ourselves in our lifetime is an endless subject of fascination for me. In addition to making images, I love writing about this. Film-making is a team sport. I believe in collaboration over competition. There is room for all of us without a need for domination.
Tell us your workflow and editing style?
Even though the JPGs from my camera are quite good, as a colourist, I want as much control over the image as possible, so I primarily shoot in RAW. The comprehensive information in the files allows for more nuances to be adjusted in post-production. I grade my photos in Adobe Lightroom and only use Photoshop for my infrared work to channel swap or if I have a photograph which needs to be more heavily retouched. I take a lot of inspiration from the colours created in my infrared work. I also use references from films and paintings to inspire me. I think of all the visual aspects of life and art as food for my palette. I help develop it by absorbing examples from a variety of materials.
Using any new camera takes some getting used to, but once I’d spent time with the fp L, I became very comfortable operating it. I was impressed by the tonality and richness of the images, especially the blacks, which have a glowing quality. If I ever have an upcoming project that involves darker skin tones, I would likely opt to use the SIGMA fp L. Each camera is a tool, unique and different, and none are objectively ‘the best one’. That said, there is always a camera that is best for you or for a particular project depending on your style and the project’s requirements.
What are your current plans for the future?
I am currently developing my next personal project. I haven’t worked on a comprehensive one since “An Equal Difference”(1), which took me three years to complete. My street portraits are just one of the strings to my bow, and it’s what I tend to share on Instagram. Street portraits are more of a meditation and a practice that keeps me sharp and give me a lot of joy. I began teaching workshops this year, which help people overcome self-doubt and their fear of photographing strangers. People who enjoy my work and want to connect further can support me on Patreon(2), which is constantly evolving.
Working on “An Equal Difference” developed how I directed subjects, conducted interviews and expressed my ideas in writing. At the beginning of the year, I took an introduction course to counselling. This helped me become a better listener and strengthened my ability to set boundaries while remaining empathetic. Future projects will undoubtedly benefit from these skills. I’m also working more commercially. I’m interested in working with ethical companies to help support their visions and communicate their ideas to customer bases. I am planning an exhibition of my street portraits and working on a companion book. It will combine my images with text about the work I’m doing with people in the workshops. It’s a joy and a privilege to do what I love and share it with others.
What is your favourite focal length and aperture settings to work with and why?
I shoot with a telephoto lens for landscape photography at F8 (or narrower) and a 35mm lens at F8 (or narrower) for candid street photography. I’m partial to a 50mm lens for my street portraiture work. I like the slight compression the lens affords, as I don’t like to distort the face. I don’t usually use anything beyond this focal length for street portraits because it may require me to stand too far away from my subject. The connection I want to establish and maintain at that distance gets lost. I usually shoot about two stops above the widest aperture to ensure the entire face is in focus. I sometimes open up to maximum apertures, but focus can be problematic. I might get only the nose or cheek in focus at the expense of the eyes.
What advice would you give to a portrait photographer who is just starting out?
Do not be discouraged if your work is not as good as you’d like it to be at the start. It takes a lot of practice and time and will differ in length for each individual, but just keep doing the work. When you hit a wall and don’t see improvements or see setbacks, push through them! It usually means that you are about to have a breakthrough.