This photograph speaks volumes. Its simplicity and directness belie the power, emotion and contradictions it contains, which is one reason it was selected as a Top 10 Pick for the 2021 Critics’ Choice Awards.
Portrait of Daniel
“What makes a powerful portrait is a set of empathic and aesthetic factors…and the presence of a punctum that the viewer cannot escape,” says Italian photographer Niki Genchi. He’s speaking about the impulses behind his photographic work, which drifts naturally between the intimacy of portraiture and playful, impactful editorial work. “I also think that a good portrait is a balance between who the subject really is and the vision that the photographer has of himself,” he says. In other words, his portraits often say as much about him as they do the people portrayed.
Born in Bari, Italy, Genchi grew up as the only child of divorced parents. He found his way to photography early on, when his mother gifted him a camera—a Polaroid 636 to be exact, which he still uses today. The immediacy of that process—how he could see a moment unfold before him, click the shutter with a satisfying clunk, and watch as a milky-hued version of it emerged before his eyes—was intoxicating, and Genchi was hooked. Later, after first tracing a career through cinema and art direction before pursuing photography, he still found himself favoring analog over digital. “I prefer working with film mainly because I feel it represents my vision of photography the most,” he says. “I’m also obsessed with composition and leaving the full film frame in each shot, not for an aesthetic purpose, but as an authorial mark of my vision. I prefer to not crop any of my images.”
There’s a sense of formal refinement to Genchi’s pictures; simple and elegant, with an understated aesthetic that allows the gaze and the presence of his sitters to be the main focus of each frame. In his portrait Daniel, for instance, the titular figure lies back on a brown leather sofa, head tilted to the side, expression unsmiling but soft, and his gaze is completely arresting. In his hands, Daniel holds a flower, delicately, as if showing us its best side, and his fingers appear to be framing it.
“In April 2021, I was looking for interesting faces with my colleague Jonathan Lorilla, editor of Iconic Artist Magazine, and we came across Daniel, a new face model,” recalls Genchi. “We planned a shoot, but the idea of the photo with the flower was unplanned, arising spontaneously by observing him and talking to him.” During their session, something made Genchi go outside and pick the best flower in his garden to give to Daniel, he says. And after that, the image of Daniel and the flower inspired him to create a whole new series. Entitled Seeds of Love, the project depicts a number of different sitters posing with flowers for Genchi’s camera, all of them bathed in the same inky, blue-green light as Daniel’s picture, and all with the same, simple set-up.
In essence, Genchi’s photographs are perhaps best described as empathetic, moving snapshots of people who allow themselves to be vulnerable in front of him for a time. Sometimes, as in his shoot with Daniel, he’ll take several shots of the same person in quick succession, knowing that the nuances between them will amount to a cumulative visual power. And as for who he likes to photograph? That’s not based on appearances, he says, but about something intangible that draws him in. “I take photos of women and men of all different ethnicities and backgrounds in the only way I know. I do not make distinctions,” he says. “In my mind we are all the same with our strengths and weaknesses, our moments of joy and unhappiness. In the end, the only thing that really matters is honesty.”
—Joanna L. Cresswell
Why the Critics selected this work
In Niki Genchi’s portrait of Daniel, the direct eye contact and body language pulls the viewer in. The flower held between Daniel’s fingertips conveys a sense of delicacy and vulnerability at a time when Black men face the pressures of looking and acting a certain way.
—Eslah Attar, Photo Editor, New York Times
This portrait is disarming and instantly breaks the stereotype of young Black men as they are often presented in the media. Daniel, a 17-year-old athlete, rapper and model, seems to express a world of emotions as he engages directly with the camera and us — defiance, vulnerability, hope, weariness, serenity, strength and beauty. It’s amazing that one photograph can convey such complexity so effectively.
—Jim Casper, Editor-in-Chief, LensCulture