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Does knowing how it feels make you a better portrait photographer? Allan Brunke thinks so

29-year-old says the struggles he has faced in his own life help him better understand his subjects

Allan Brunke didn’t set out to be a photographer.

The 29-year-old gave Business Administration the old college try before realizing he was “terrible” at math and flunked out after a semester. When the option to major in photography presented itself, he realized this hobby of his could actually become a career. He enrolled the following term.

Since then, Brunke has used his skillset and unique approach to carve out a niche in Sault Ste. Marie. For the last few years, he’s built up an audience through word-of-mouth and Instagram; turning his lens on professional models and regular people alike. He’s arguably become one of - if not the best - portrait photographer in the city.

Raised on a farm in Bruce Mines, Brunke was introduced to the craft as a teen after meeting Tom Carnahan, a pro photographer who had landed in Thessalon.

“He and I became friends,” explains Brunke. “He said: You need an outlet for something. You have all this creative energy but you’re not putting it into anything.” Carnahan handed him a professional digital SLR camera and told him to try it.

So he did. “I just kind of innately knew what I was doing,” says Brunke, “I had a sense for it.”

In school, his work was dark and brooding, reflecting his own internal state more than that of his subjects. Brunke was depressed.

“I had a very defeatist outlook . . . everything seemed pointless for a very long time.”

When he was 11, his parents divorced, which spelled relief from the constant arguing - but he struggled. His relationship with his father was shaky. “We had trouble communicating,” says Brunke. “I thought he wanted me to be something else.”

Brunke was internalizing things that had happened to him and shouldering the blame. “I realized that past me was the problem,” he says. “Not current me.”

When he changed his way of thinking, and began to open up, the fog started to lift. His work changed, too. “It’s gotten a lot brighter, happier,” he says.

“Before it was about my emotions and putting those in the work, now it’s about other people. It’s about empowerment, validation, and making people feel confident. I know what [depression] feels like and I don’t want anybody to have to deal with that.

It’s important to me to make sure that everybody I work with leaves our interaction feeling 100 per cent better than when they walked in. Because that’s how we change everything in the world. You gotta start small.”

Drawing inspiration from the work of Nigel Parry & Mark Seliger, Brunke’s portraits are imbued with that one ineffable factor: Personality. “Anybody can take a nice portrait of a person, airbrush it to the hilt, perfect lighting, perfect technical aspects,” says Brunke. “But there’s nothing behind the eyes. They’re just dead. Technically, the portrait looks great. But a good percentage of people will look at it and think; what’s missing? The personality isn’t there.”

“What I try to bring forward is that personality; even when I’m working with professional models. Because that’s what people connect with.” Brunke’s own struggles with mental health have afforded him the ability to treat his subjects with candor and warmth. He’ll begin a session with his camera in hand. “When people are focusing on the camera, I’ve found it very easy to just ask them questions about themselves,” he says.

“When you start to getting to a certain depth in the conversation, you start seeing a bit in the photos, because they open up and get more comfortable. That’s when you get that perfect moment of their personality on record.”

Brunke has mastered the art of getting to know his subjects in a short span of time. “I truly believe that everyone on the planet is a very valuable human being - and should understand their value. A lot of people don’t. I make them feel as important as I possibly can, because that’s what I want them to leave feeling.”

That sense of confidence and ease comes across in his intimate portraiture, too. The key with those shoots, he says, is communication. His subjects choose their own wardrobe, and bring in their own ideas for poses. “I try to get them as involved as possible so they are comfortable about it and know the direction that it’s going.”  

He has a policy to sit down and look at everything afterwards. “They have to give me the OK for all the stuff that goes out. Other than that, it just never sees the light of day. It’s 100 per cent trust. I don’t want anybody to feel overly vulnerable. Because it’s a thing that they should be confident in.”

While Brunke enjoys the attention from the finished product, he will always relish the process a little bit more. “I love the planning, listening to someone else’s idea and bringing it to life. And just learning people’s stories is such a cool thing - seeing what makes them tick. Seeing what they’re interested in as human beings.”

That being said, his all-time favourite photos are a series he took with his mother. “I sat her down and did some portraits of her. I’m very happy, because I’ll have those for the rest of my life. I wanted to do the same for my father, but he unfortunately passed away. I did a session right after he passed away; I went into his old workshop; all covered in sawdust and stuff. Those ones are hard to look at, for me,” he admits.

When his grandfather passed away, Brunke went to the funeral and finally had it out with his dad. “We sat down and just yelled and screamed and cried and it’s the greatest thing that happened in my life,” he says, “because I carried all this with me for so long. He had never said that he was proud of me when I was younger, and it was something that I carried with me. I thought he was disappointed. But it was then he told me; of course I’m proud of you, I tell people all the time how awesome it is you’re doing all this work. I had no idea. Having that recognition really opened  a lot of doors for me mentally. I feel limitless now.”