Telepresence Portraits

©Sane Seven

During the 2020 pandemic lockdown in the United Kingdom, photographers Marius Janciauskas and Viktorija Grigorjevaite, co-founders of the studio Sane Seven, were hired to create 20 portraits of the most prominent women in technology for the Women in Data organization. But how to make portraits during London’s strict COVID-19 lockdown?

Inspired to make it work, the studio purchased a simple telepresence robot with a screen, speakers, and microphone, which would allow the photographers to communicate with each subject. Janciauskas further equipped the robot with a Huawei P20 Pro mobile camera, which does well in low light, and a Leica lens. The robot, named Snowflake, could be operated remotely, and was delivered to each of the portrait subjects’ homes in turn, where the sessions took place.

It wasn’t easy making portraits via robot. Lag time was particularly frustrating. “Imagine you have to take a portrait, but you can only see where the person was a second or two ago” because of a poor internet connection, says Janciauskas. “Saying, ‘Stop, this pose is perfect’ could mean a very different pose from the one you’re trying to capture.” With no onsite assistant, additive light couldn’t be used, so Grigorjevaite moved the robot around the subject’s home to get a sense of the best spot for a natural light portrait. “Not all homes had great lighting, but we shot many portraits close to the windows or against the windows, which created a nice hazy atmosphere,” Janciauskas says.

The robot was a low-budget proof-of-concept, according to Janciauskas. “It was like a disposable film camera in terms of its abilities and functionality, but we still managed to create some simple but relatively decent portraits.” There were (somewhat comical) stresses during sessions—overheating systems, signal delays, the robot losing its balance on the carpet causing the screen to fall off.

He believes an upgrade of the robotic equipment could be a promising tool for additional photographic uses. “If the robot was well built, we feel it would be a natural extension of the photographer’s moves, allowing for the same or similar artistic style. It’s still the same photography tool, even if it’s detached from the screen and separated by a thousand miles.” 

Amanda Arnold is associate editor.