Portrait photography has been around almost as long as photography itself, and is now, perhaps, the most common and popular type of image-making we do. We think nothing of whipping out our smart phones to photograph our nearest and dearest, but how often do we stop and think about the images we’re taking of each other?

A project curated by Stuart Pilkington encourages us to take a different view of this age-old genre of photography. Since August 2013, Pilkington has been running “The Swap”, an on-going portrait project in which pairs of photographers photograph each other. Every few days, Pilkington uploads a different pair of portraits taken by photographers who either asked to be involved or who he approached. The concept is deceptively simple: beneath the straightforward concept, the project plays with the notion of how we see ourselves through portrait photography, and questions what it means to turn the camera on each other.

In “The Swap,” photographers become the subject—an interesting notion given how most photographers are used to being behind the camera. The site has so far featured around 200 pairings (and counting), and in May, Pilkington hopes to launch a Kickstarter campaign to publish a book of some of the best. Pilkington talks to LensCulture contributing writer Gemma Padley to explain the thinking behind the project.


LC: The concept of photographers photographing each other is a simple but effective one. Where did the idea come from and why did you want to start “The Swap?”

SP: All of my ideas are very simple. I often find that in life people want to put people through hoops and make things difficult, but I want to do the opposite. I believe that simple ideas are catalysts for creativity. So if an idea comes to me, I’ll think, “Why not try it and see what happens?”

I love portraiture—it’s my favorite type of photography—and I knew I wanted to do a simple project based on this. I’d already done another project in which I asked people to photograph someone they know, so this seemed to be a step on from that. My projects are always about connecting people. I really like the tribe of photographers that is connected online, but the great thing about this project is that it connects people in person too.


LC: Do you give photographers any guidelines at all, or leave the images they take up to them?

SP: People can photograph however and whenever they want. I’m very laid-back and hands-off. I want the project to be relaxed, and for people to have fun and explore—to do what they want to do. The notion of “play” is important to me, and I think that, on some level, the projects I do must connect with people. Some people have even come back for a second go!


GP: Looking back over the project as you now bring it to a close [the cut-off for submissions is on May 31, 2015], what are you most proud of? What will you take away from this project?

SP: There have been so many different voices, and people have used so many different techniques to create their images. I’ve been introduced to early photographic processes; people have made passport photos of each other, and used photomontage. In this way, the project I hope has been inspiring, and shows that portrait photography is not just about traditional approaches – it can be so much more than that.

—Stuart Pilkington, interviewed by Gemma Padley


Editors’ Note: To see more images from “The Swap,” feel free to visit the project’s website.

You can find more of Gemma Padley’s great writing on her personal website. She also runs a blog called Too Many TasteMakers (TMTM).