Paradoxes lie at the heart of great photographic portraits. We know a photograph can’t actually “capture” anything essential about people in the photographs. More often what we are seeing is powerfully influenced by context, our own biases and preferences and those of the photographer. Intellectually, we are aware that we can’t know a person from simply looking at them, much less from a mute photograph. However, emotionally and spiritually, the temptation to try and do just that is too powerful to ignore. Technically, we know better, but we still look for “truth” in portraits.

Another paradox in portraiture is connected to our basic humanity—the fact that how we look is not how we feel.

Another paradox in portraiture is connected to our basic humanity—the fact that how we look is not how we feel. These spheres, of internal feeling and being, can’t be reconciled with how we look on the outside, and how we appear to other people. This is a fundamental puzzle of being—and this spectacle, the collision of internal and external worlds and intentions is often what makes portraits compelling.

Who is doing the looking is important too. Is the photographer empathetic or opportunistic? Is it possible to be both? Is the photographer testing our expectations and visual consumption, or adding to the heap of stereotypes and reinforcing social norms?

My professor, photographer Dawoud Bey was the first to really impress upon me how formal portrait photography could be both artfully disruptive and socially important. His work at the time upended expectations by depicting young African-American men and other racially diverse men in poses that echoed postures of historical portrait paintings. The dignity, pride and intimacy of the large-scale color portraits contrasted with popular media images of young African-Americans and underscored the absence of these men in traditional art history.

Bey’s book of portraits—published by Aperture—Class Pictures, is one I’ve gone back to again and again. Class Pictures is a collection of portraits of an economically and racially diverse group of high school students. The portraits are plain, shot simply with basic lighting, with no attempt at flattery. There is no technical sizzle or dramatic pop. They are simply deeply empathetic portraits of young people. Autobiographical statements from the students were published alongside their portraits. In this way, the students and the photographer guided the narrative. The pairings of the photographs and the statements let viewers confront unexamined, and perhaps even subconscious, ideas about people who do or don’t look like us.

Meanwhile, “The Birmingham Project” (2012) commemorates the four young girls and two boys whose lives were lost on September 15, 1963, in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama and the violent aftermath. Dawoud Bey photographed current residents of Birmingham: girls, women, boys, and men. The subjects paired are the ages of the young victims at the time of their deaths, and the ages they would be were they alive today.

The photographs were made in two Birmingham locations, Bethel Baptist Church (which was a very active church in the Civil Rights Movement) and the Birmingham Museum of Art (which during the 1960s was a segregated institution). Each participant was photographed separately and then paired into diptychs afterwards, using gesture, psychology, temperament and physical resemblance to create a connection between the two subjects.

A self-described visual activist, Zanele Muholi is another photographer who has chosen the tradition of portraiture to challenge sociopolitical structures, to build and archive community. Muholi’s oeuvre includes films and still portraits of the LGBTI community in South Africa as well as self portraits. Her portraits of the LGBTI community bring this group into the spotlight, documenting their triumphs and struggles in a country that has legalized same-sex marriage, but where homophobia and hate crimes are all too common.

Muholi’s recent multiple exhibitions in New York City are particularly timely in the United States, where race and sexual identity have both entered the national dialogue in a new way. Her transcendent self portraits are not only political; they cut across categories, confronting the viewer with a dazzling array of contradictions and complexities. The life and energy coming from the portraits made me feel as though I was actually being seen by the artist as well as seeing her.

Muholi has collapsed the role of the subject and the photographer into one, directing and simultaneously offering herself up intimately. The portraits ask what it means to be female, to be black, to be sexual, to be desired, to be hated, and to be loved. In Bona, Charlottesville, 2015 (the final picture in the slideshow above), the artist is naked on a bed, top of her head to the camera, but her direct eye contact is redirected back to the viewer in a round mirror. She flips the gaze that would attempt to view her body as a object. The picture asks what it means to look, and to be looked at. In her self-portraits, confrontation and vulnerability, authority and playfulness, deep existential questions and humour square off, forcing viewers to face preconceptions of race and identity.

What makes a truly great portrait? Fortunately, there is no formula.

What makes a truly great portrait? Fortunately, there is no formula. Many talented photographers will never be able to make successful portraits, or will spend years slowly learning. Empathy is important, but empathy alone does not make a strong portrait. Successful portraits are the result of a mysterious alchemy between the photographer and subject, or the artist and the audience.

For a formal portrait to work, the subject must collaborate, and give something to the photographer. When this happens, viewers are given a kind of unearned intimacy with the subject. What is it we see in these portraits? Do they allow viewers an opportunity to construe their own interpretations, or do they truly show something of the subject? It may be that great portraits reflect big questions back at us, tugging at something interior that acknowledges and recognizes others as both separate from and part of ourselves.

—Rebecca Horne

Rebecca Horne is a photographer, and she writes on photography, science and art in national publications and the multimedia mobile platform Storehouse. Recent writing includes Wild Pigeon for Daylight and What do these uploaded videos say about society? for CNN. Recent writing in print includes a book essay for California based-artist Johnna Arnold’s In/Finite Potential.

Dawoud Bey is an American photographer and educator renowned for his large-scale color portraits of adolescents and other, often marginalized subjects. He recently was named a More of his excellent and wide-ranging work can be found on his gallery’s website.

Zanele Muholi is a South African photographer and visual activist. Muholi is a visual activist who tries to bring light to the importance of black lesbian women in South Africa. She is represented by Stevenson Gallery in Johannesburg and Cape Town, where you can find out more about her work.