I got a wonderful email recently from Jonathan Nee, who asked a very interesting question about marriage/relationship insights from me and Elena, as well as the photographer/model relationship between husband and wife. I wrote a detailed reply that I thought might be useful to others, so I asked his permission to post his email and my reply in my blog.
This was the email from Jonathan:
Hello, and Happy New Year!
For the longest time I’ve had a bit of a crazy thought, and I wanted to share it with you for whatever it’s worth…. Have you and Elena ever thought of writing/publishing something about life and love? Perhaps it’d be something more about your own experiences, trials, and successes…or it might even be more prescriptive in nature, essentially you two giving your advice on how to (for example) engage, nurture, and maintain such a happy relationship. It’d be interesting because I could totally see each of you providing your individual perspectives on the matter, and if so, I’m sure all of your fans would want two copies of the text–one of him/herself and one for the significant other. Btw, I use the word publish, because I have no doubt that many would gladly pay for it. I would!
It should be no surprise to you that so many people look to you as a role model… You being able to work so successfully in the field(s) of your desire, all the while being in a loving relationship with such a supportive spouse. (Case in point, most of us photographer husbands have enough trouble just getting our wives in front of the camera…..as you’ve proven yet again, you have no trouble consistently drawing out the perfect poses and expressions from Elena. I suppose some of it might be training, some of it talent….but I do also believe that what the camera captures reflects a greater truth of warmth and happiness.) All hail Rob!
Again, just my two cents… No obligation to respond whatsoever, and I really do wish you and yours the very best in this new year. Thank you.
And this was my reply to him (edited for improved clarity and readability):
Happy New Year to you too!
You know what’s funny? Elena and I see articles with titles like “Secrets to a great marriage” on the web all the time, and whenever we read those articles, we noticed they pretty much describe exactly how we treat each other.
But knowing the “how” is not the same as being able to do it, as not everyone has the right temperament, values, or lifestyle that’s conducive to a great relationship. Some people have issues with being too narcissistic, or too insecure, or too selfish, or too impatient, or too manipulative, and so on, or they live a lifestyle that’s not possible for a healthy relationship. But even if both parties are willing to make the effort to overcome personality defects or logistical problems, it’s still very important to meet the right person.
It’s weird how we can be very different when interacting with different people, as some people bring out different sides of us. For example, you might be hilarious around someone who’s very receptive to your sense of humor, but when you’re with someone who’s really serious and uptight, you probably wouldn’t crack a single joke. The hard part is finding someone who brings out the sides of you that helps you become the person you aspire to be (as opposed to someone who bring out the worst qualities in you). When I’m with Elena, I’m not the same as when I was with my ex-girlfriends. When she’s with me, she’s not like how she was with her ex’s either. I think part of it was luck that we found someone that happened to match what we need/want and brought out the best of ourselves.
But of course, relationship takes effort too, and if Elena and I had to list the things we have observed that we do but others don’t, they would be:
-We always talk things out if we have disagreements or misunderstandings. Letting it fester is the worst thing you can do. It can be hard to force yourself to openly communicate how you feel when you’re in a bad mood, and sometimes you do need time/space to calm down first, which is fine. But as soon as you’re calmer, talk it out. You have to let the other person know why you’re angry or hurt or disappointed, and then also listen to why the other person is also upset. And then you have to make an effort to correct whatever it is that caused things to go bad. We see too many couples that don’t listen, don’t talk things out, and don’t make enough effort, and their relationship just goes to the toilet eventually. When making an effort, you have to be willing to push yourself out of your comfort zone and try things that are difficult for you, breaking old bad habits and knee-jerk reactions, and think more before acting.
-You can’t be selfish if you want a great relationship. You have to care about how the other person feels, their health, their mental state, support their passions and interests, share their joys and disappointments, be there for them emotionally, etc. This has to go both ways, and not just one person being selfless while the other person takes advantage of that selflessness. Too many couples have relationships that’s far too one-sided, or neither seem to care enough about each other. If you really love each other, you should be babying each other as if you’re each other’s precious child to protect and love and support, and would never ever want to hurt intentionally. It boggles our minds when we see couples fight and purposely say and do really hurtful things to each other. You’re supposed to be lovers, not enemies, so why would you treat each other like enemies? (Note: this has nothing to do with constructive criticism intended to help the other person grow–it has to do with being sensitive to each other’s psychological/emotional state and not being jerks to each other.)
-We accept each other, and as long as we share the same important values in life, it’s fine. Don’t nitpick and demand that they be perfect in every way that suits your standards, because none of us are perfect. It’s ridiculous how some couples fight over stupid minor things that are so insignificant when compared to the really important values like moral integrity, social responsibility, compassion and tolerance, etc. When couples fight about leaving dirty socks on the floor, or not turning off the lights when leaving a room, or forgetting to pick up the milk–that’s when they are missing the important bigger picture. If little things like that can drive you crazy and hurt your relationship, then there’s very likely something else that’s wrong with the relationship–something much deeper than inconsequential domestic squabbles.
-Have at least some similar interests/hobbies/passions can help a lot. Although Elena and I don’t share the exact same passions (I’m all about the arts and entertainment, and she’s all about gardening, health, and homemaking), we do share some. For example, we love the same TV shows and we discuss the plot, characters, themes, etc. We also love learning about interesting and meaningful things and send each other links all day long (stuff like various TED Talks, scientific news, sociopolitical commentaries, etc. And of course, videos of adorable animals and children and silly viral videos) We also patiently listen to each other when one of us is geeking out over something the other person isn’t passionate about. For example, she will talk my ears off about gardening stuff, and I have zero interest in it, but I would listen and try to understand why she’s excited, and whenever I across interesting articles or videos about botany, or cool domestic life-hacks, or new studies on health/food, I would send those links to her and we’d talk about them. For her, she would patiently listen to me talk about my latest K-Pop obsession and watch K-Pop videos with me (although she likes to tease me about it sometimes. “Oh, are we watching those ass-shaking K-Pop girls again?”).
-Don’t act your age all the time. Seriously, this is important. When couples try so hard to be mature adults who act their age every waking moment, it’s really damn boring. Elena and I are like giddy puppy dogs around each other. We make the most cringe-worthy dumb-ass jokes, say really childish silly things (including endless baby-talk and silly nicknames and make weird animal noises), repeat our own private memes, try to gross each other out by describing the nastiest thing possible (festering wounds, overflowing toilets, eaten alive by insects, etc.), play silly made up games, chase each other around the house, and so on. Just lots of really embarrassing shit–some of which we we might even do in front of other people (as long as it’s not intrusive to others). Of course, all of this is for the sake of keeping our inner child alive and healthy, and has nothing to do with actual immaturity.
“As for photographers and their significant others, I would say that having a great relationship is the first step, because I don’t think Elena and I could keep the Kitty Cat Diary going for all these years (since 2001) if we didn’t have a great marriage. But here are some advice Elena and I would give to others, and it’s with the assumption that they already have a great relationship (and if not, then work on that first. Also, although I’m going to assume it’s a husband and wife relationship, this applies to all relationships):
-You have to understand how your significant other feels about herself. Are there body-image issues? How’s her self-esteem? What causes her to be self-conscious? If there are issues in those areas, ask yourself how you can help her overcome those issues. Do you convey how attracted you are to her? Do you praise her enough?
-You have to help her understand why you want to capture her with your camera. Tell her why it’s important to you, such as recording precious memories of domestic bliss and capturing every stage of your lives together, satisfying your need for creative fulfillment while having the subject be the person you love so much, and so on.
-Make it fun. In the early years when I first started learning photography, I was a lot more serious and it could put too much pressure on the model. I would try so hard to achieve certain types of results and if we were coming up short, I’d get frustrated, which then ruins the fun atmosphere. If you keep it lighthearted and fun, then it’ll be a lot more enjoyable for your model, and when they have a good time, they’ll be a lot more willing to do it again next time. To be a good photographer of people, you have to learn how to put people at ease and communicate effectively. There’s a time and place to be “the artiste” who’s demanding and critical, but not when it’s at the expense of your relationship with the model. Ideally, when shooting your other half, even when you’re correcting her mistakes and communicating what you want, you should still make her feel like a goddess who’s being worshiped by your camera. (It’s a really effective aphrodisiac too; if you get her too worked up with compliments, she might pounce on you and you’ll have to take a break for some sexy-time.)
-You need to have enough skills as a photographer. If your romantic partner is already reluctant about letting you take photos, it would only make things worse if you don’t have the adequate skills to make her look beautiful. One look at the disappointing results and she would lose all confidence in herself. You might ask, “If I can’t get my significant other to be my model, how do I practice and get better?” Well, you’re just going to have to find other people to model for you so you can practice. Family, friends, or even models for hire (such as from websites like Model Mayhem. Some inexperienced models are willing to do even trade, where they model for you in exchange for your photos). Once you are good enough and your romantic partner can see how good you have become, they’ll be more likely to let you take their photos. (If you’re going to practice shooting with other models, make sure your significant other is okay with it.)
Elena said what she loves the most about being my model/muse, is that my photos of her make her look more beautiful than all the other photographers she’s worked with in the past (she was a professional model/actress in her youth). She said I was able to capture certain alluring qualities that no other photographer ever captured, including qualities she didn’t even know she had. She had no idea she could look adorable and cute, or coquettish and sultry, and it’s only when she saw the photos I took of her that she saw those qualities in herself for the first time. This is another reason why having a great relationship is so important. Other photographers and her past ex’s simply couldn’t bring those qualities out of her.
Beyond technical proficiency, there’s also aesthetic sensibility, and this is where I see a lot of amateur fashion/glamour photographers do poorly (but keep in mind this is subjective). There are different kinds of allure when it comes to capturing a human subject (and I’ll focus on feminine beauty, since that’s what I do) and all of them are valid and can be very interesting and appealing– from tongue-in-cheek and coquettish naughtiness, cute and demure sexiness, elegant sensuality, artistic pensive moods, to stark raunchiness. It’s a matter of knowing what goes well with what person, for both the model and the photographer. Trying to force something that isn’t natural or suitable, or something neither the model or photographer can pull off convincingly, would often result in photos that appear stiff, sterile, contrived, crass, or even revolting.
Most women would like to be alluring (to whom, when, and how often depends on the person), and it’s up to the photographers to unearth what kind of allure is natural to that woman, as well as what she aspires to and has the ability to pull off, despite it not being within her usual persona. When I met Elena, she was far more reserved, and over the years I managed to unearth aspects of her she didn’t even know she had or could be. Those discoveries delighted both of us, and is a part of what makes it fun and fulfilling.
So how do you learn all that? Well, you have to learn all the basics of photography such as composition, proper exposure, depth-of-field control, effective lighting for the look you want, etc. Then you have to learn about shooting people, such as studying facial expressions, body language, posing do’s and don’ts, utilizing props and the environment, convey visual narratives and emotions, and so on. Analyze the works of photographers you admire. Experiment with different focal lengths, aperture settings, camera angles, lighting schemes, poses, expressions, clothing, props, locations, and moods. Also practice capturing people candidly so they are simply being their natural selves.
WHEW, this is what you get when you correspond with a writer; you get replies with massive word-count.
Anyway, I hope you find some of that helpful.”
Jonathan sent me a thoughtful reply that thanked me and Elena for our advice, and I think a couple of things he said in his reply are particularly insightful and important for those who are seeking relationship advice:
“There is so much wisdom in your words… I’ve spent the past couple days reading/reflecting on what you wrote, and still I continue to extract deeper meaning with each pass. The points you raise seem such obvious truths now that you mention them; yet, without knowing what to look out for and simply resorting to feeling one’s way through the darkness, those very truths are entirely too easy to miss. Thank You–I really mean it when I say it, but I feel those two simple words aren’t enough. Until I have more to offer, I hope my commitment to pay it forward will suffice.
Per your suggestion, I’m waiting until later to introduce/incorporate the photography-related tips into our relationship. That said, the “You need to have enough skills…and if not, you need to practice on your own time” paragraph hit me immediately, especially as I find it also has significant meaning when applied to relationships in the broader sense. All throughout the courtship and dating phase (presumably when people fall in love), each individual works heavily behind the scenes so that he/she can show off the best possible version of themselves when actually in the presence of their romantic interest…. Yet, fast-forward a bit to a certain duration after the honeymoon phase (presumably when people begin falling out of love) and the individuals, having already seen and done everything, get more relaxed with each other, often times forgetting that it was all the behind-the-scenes efforts and subsequent surprises that impressed their lover. Certainly I think there’s a case for making the journey together as a couple, but with your text in mind, I do also believe there must be continual independent development as well…. I suppose what this long paragraph means to say is that I have a better perspective now.”
I hope my exchange with Jonathan will help those of you who need it.