Mario Marino: Shooting Portraits with Empathy

Mario Marino was born in 1967 in Austria. He has been a photographer since 2000 and is based in Germany. He has a special partnership with the Hahnemühle Paper Company and uses their paper for all his gallery and museum exhibitions. His work has been exhibited all over the world including Leica Galerie Salzburg.

The portfolio presented here was taken during a visit to Rajasthan, India in September 2013. Below, Mario explains how important connecting to the people he photographs is for him and his work.

Q: The images in your portfolio were all shot in India. Can you tell us something about your motivations in traveling to India, what inspired you to undertake this project, and what you were expecting to see or trying to achieve in creating these fascinating pictures?

A: In general I’m very interested in other cultures, including Indian culture. I‘m fascinated by the extraordinary Indian faces and, of course, the people and their cultural background and identity.

Q: The overwhelming feeling created by looking at these images is the simple joy of being and living in the world. There is something very positive and uplifting in these pictures even though not all of them express overt joy. Do you agree, and if so, what is it about your approach or mindset, or the location itself, that creates this impression?

A: I do absolutely agree. To me it‘s essential to show the beauty and dignity of people, even if there is a lot of horror, cruelty and poverty in our world. But overall, I really do love people. And that’s key. While shooting it is necessary that the people feel that I’m honestly interested in them. Otherwise I couldn’t get that intensity.

Q: How would you describe your photography?

A: I have been a travel portrait photographer for the past 14 years. Empathy and walking is the key to my work. A normal day consists of about 8 -10 hours walking around looking for people (15 to 20 kilometers a day). I try to read people’s lives, the circumstances they live in, the feelings they must have. The human being is at the center of my photography.

Q: You state that portrait photography and an empathetic connection to the people you photograph are central to your work, and the majority of the pictures in this portfolio do indeed show people making direct eye contact with the camera. However, these pictures also have the spontaneous character of grab shots where people are being themselves rather than being directed. How do you manage to achieve that engaging combination of natural spontaneity and direct awareness in your portraits?

A: It sounds like an antagonism, but really all of the pictures are well-composed and elaborated grab shots. And as I said before, while shooting it’s necessary that the people feel that I’m honestly interested in them. Otherwise I couldn’t come to that intensity.

Q: What camera did you use to shoot the images in your portfolio?

A: The Leica X2.

Q: Why do you think the Leica X2 is especially suitable for the kind of photography you do?

A: The Leica X2 is small and very habile. So it’s perfect and manageable during my trips.

Q: This image of a really gorgeous family portrait shows a profound physical and emotional connection between a father and his two young children. The image is also technically superb, showcasing beautiful tonal gradations, textures and subtle colors. Can you tell how you came to shoot this image?

A: I met this father with his two children by accident in Pushkar, Rajasthan. My driver and I had traveled about seven hours in the city and we were very tired. We were having a drink when this beautiful man asked me for some rupees. He is a beggar. There was this incredible charisma. Immediately I started to look for a background, a house wall or anything like that. I placed him in the shadow; the sunlight from the opposite side was the brightener. That’s all. I took four or five pictures, gave him some rupees and they went away.

Q: You simply have to smile when you look at this image of an irrepressibly cute, brightly attired, bright-eyed smiling little boy being held out a train window by an Indian woman in traditional dress. Both are smiling but the woman is looking away from the camera, and that’s what really focuses the attention on the main subject, making the image much more powerful. Do you concur, and what were you thinking when you pressed the shutter release. By the way, did you tell the woman to look away or was this a totally spontaneous moment?

A: At first there was just the grandmother. I took three or four pictures of her. Suddenly this little boy appeared. He is so full of happiness, power and hope – it’s incredible. Everything went very quickly, I took three more pictures and that’s it. I do love this picture very much because you can see the different generations and I guess, you can imagine the future of this little boy and probably of Rajasthan. There is a lot of power and confidence.

Q: This image of a red-turbaned man is shot from a diagonal perspective and has very shallow depth of field, both of which draw the viewer’s attention to his fascinating face and intense gaze. Was this composition a conscious decision on your part or just a fortunate circumstance?

A: I spotted that fascinating old man on the bus. I looked at him with a question in my eyes. He nodded in agreement and I took this picture. It was both a fortunate circumstance and a planned picture. I was very conscious of the situation and the detail of the photo. Even if there is a lot of intuitive action the portraits are somehow planned. They do not arise by accident. They are a result of my knowledge and my consideration.

Q: The happy tuba players are beautifully framed by their instruments and the picture also has an extended depth of field and sharp background details that give a good sense of the street context of a marching band. Can you tell us the story behind this image and what aperture and focal length you used?

A: Yes, it’s a great picture. These musicians had a very good energy. Everybody around was happy and expecting the beginning of the concert with a lot of anticipation. So it was a perfect mood. And those two guys are great. I am a cineaste – and they remind me of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. So I always laugh when looking at this photo.

Q: How do you see your photography evolving over the next few years?

A: I’m scheduling my next trip to India. There are still a lot of fascinating places and people to find and portraits to do! My plan is to collect around 200 pictures for a book on India.

Q: Have you ever thought about collecting a retrospective of your work shot in various places, and/or your images that have been exhibited in various galleries, into a book or a series of books?

A: I’ve had a lot of exhibitions in the last two years, even one in a museum in Holland. On December 16, there is going to be a vernissage with my pictures at The Empty Quarter Gallery in Dubai and another museum exhibition in Austria and Holland. And so on. There is a lot to do!

Thank you for your time, Mario!

- Leica Internet Team

Connect with Mario on his website, Twitter and Facebook.