Project Zoomtrait

Amsterdam portrait photographer uses Zoom to photograph people across the globe, in the age of quarantine

Casey Meshbesher
Mar 16 · 6 min read

In “Her Side Street” we explore creative bylanes female Street photographers have taken during quarantine. We meet Barbara van Schaik, who shares about her Zoom based portrait series.

“For my photography, the year 2020 was all about desolate urban landscapes. The empty streets of the first lockdown period (Spring 2020) in my home country of The Netherlands handed me some of the best images for my current virtual exhibition Footnote — a series consisting mostly of images lacking any physical human presence.

With the arrival of 2021, The Netherlands has entered its second major lockdown in anticipation of a third COVID wave. Although the vaccination program has started slowly but surely, I find myself (like so many others) getting anxious and restless: the end of the COVID crisis seems near, and yet still feels so far away.

Life seems stuck, and so is my photography. I long for the buzz of street photography, hunting the streets filled with (lots of) people. Back to visiting fairs, car boot sales and festivities like King’s Day and Canal Pride. And I especially develop a strong urge for the true human connections that portrait photography offers me.

But with the COVID restrictions still firmly in place, mass gatherings or events are not possible for the time being. And I need to keep my physical contact bubble as limited as possible due to personal circumstances (at least as long as I am not vaccinated).

I start to wonder whether there is a way to take a portrait while not physically in the same room with the person being portrayed. Is this at all possible? And suddenly an idea pops up during one of my morning walks: could I use a Zoom connection? The camera in the participant’s desktop, laptop, phone, or tablet could be my camera. And the ‘print-screen’ functionality of my iMac the shutter button I press when I want to take a photo.

A Zoomtrait, instead of a portrait.

The method seems so obvious that I cannot imagine it hasn’t been done before: and of course it has. Though to my surprise very rarely and with slightly different techniques. I run a test with a friend. It works very well, and I learn that using a phone/tablet or laptop works best: the model can move around for different background scenes. And most of all: it is a lot of fun!

I publish this first portrait (‘Man with Guitar’) in a message on Facebook, calling for more participants in order to experiment further. And not in vain: one participant leads to another, and so on, including people I have never met before.

Project Zoomtrait is born.

Marjolein is famous for her colorful outfits (and high heels). So publishing her portrait in anything but color seemed unimaginable. However, when editing I tend to routinely check photos in a monochrome preview in Lightroom, just to see what that does for a photo. One of the portraits worked surprisingly well in black-and-white.

Somewhat ironic perhaps, given it is the lack of physical connection that’s been wearing me down lately, that it is a project using a digital connection that energizes me and gets me through this stage of the COVID crisis. And more than that: Project Zoomtrait becomes my document of the way we connect in these turbulent times.

I learn that a portrait taken via Zoom is in many ways the same as taking a portrait on location: a given participant’s surroundings (at home, office or outside) are leading. And as a photographer I work with what I find ‘on location’, light, background, situation and decor. And I make the same decisions: do I go for close-up or do I choose a portrait where more surroundings are visible? How do I want to portray someone? And what does the my subject want? And it is often about more than just the portrait: the conversations with the people being photographed are equally important and valuable.

What is really different: I need the participant to arrange a number of technical matters that I normally don’t bother my subjects with. I need help adjusting lighting if necessary, showing me around the room or home for a suitable spot, and to set up the ‘camera’ properly. This leads to another interesting discovery: people who normally feel less at ease in front of a camera are more relaxed, as they are distracted by acting as my assistant. They tell me it helps them overcome their camera-shyness. A lesson I will definitely take to heart when returning to physical portrait sessions.

One thing I struggle with the most is the technical quality of the end result: my photography is about sharpness, in all details. However, by definition the resolution of a Zoom connection is quite low, and therefore so is the resolution and sharpness of the photo. I try to improve the sharpness of the Zoomtraits in Photoshop. I search the web for sharpness enhancing tools. To no avail. Then I decide to embrace the blurriness. After all, isn’t that also how we see each other when connecting digitally? The fuzzy imperfections of an analog Polaroid photo spring to mind, and I decide to add a Polaroid frame to the Zoomtraits in post-editing.

And a Zoomtrait becomes a portrait with an analog feel, taken via digital connection.

I anticipate Project Zoomtrait will continue at least for as long as COVID restrictions apply. And more participants are always welcome (contact me on link below if you would like to partake). All Zoomtraits can be viewed on my website.

In the meantime, as I remain positive and hopeful that we will be able to return to some degree of normality in the course of 2021, my thoughts already wander to my photography beyond Zoomtrait and COVID. I am not much of a world traveler anymore, not even before COVID. Could the Zoomtrait method be a way for me to take portraits of people in places I will probably never physically visit — anytime, anyplace in the world? Definitely something worth exploring.”

Working on location often provides various scenes for portraits. This was also the case with Tatjana, who wanted to include her bread baking process (her typical lockdown activity) in the portrait. The kitchen was the obvious place for the portrait. But we also moved to her front door, as she often hands out the bread to her neighbors as well. Interesting side effect during this Zoomtrait session: though I wasn’t physically present, I swear I could smell the fresh baked bread.

Barbara was born in 1965 in Diemen (The Netherlands), and is by now a longtime resident of Amsterdam. While studying Chemistry she took up photography, analog and black & white. Though her career took her in different directions at first, photography was always around, digital and in color. Her photography experience is largely self-taught, supplemented with courses and workshops. She focusses on portrait, documentary and street, and urban landscape photography.

Barbara van Schaik | Website | Instagram

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