"One of the most important things in the beginning of any story," says photographer Peter Serling, "is establishing some sort of trust with your subjects." That's an especially tall order if one of your subjects is a master of deceit like Shi Peipu, the onetime Chinese opera star who let his lover believe he was a woman. Yet for this week's Sequel story on the real-life couple who inspired the hit Broadway play M. Butterfly, Serling managed to gain the confidence of both Shi and his former lover, ex-civil servant Bernard Boursicot, whom he and Senior Writer Joyce Wadler tracked down in Paris and Marrakech. The really hard work, says Serling, consisted of deciding how best to capture the essence of their story on film. "To me the most fascinating thing isn't how Shi deceived Bernard, but why," he says. "The challenge was to create an image that in some way reflects that dynamic of self-deception."
It is that willingness to think before he snaps that makes Serling, 31, one of the photographers PEOPLE'S picture editors turn to most often. In the past year alone he has trained his lens on five shipwrecked Costa Ricans (July 11), Hugh Hefner's former playmate Carrie Leigh (May 9), Hair-spray director John Waters and 28 others. "Peter has an incredible ability to conjure up dramatic pictures," says PEOPLE Picture Editor M.C. Marden. "He puts a lot of thought into each shoot—you can always see his mind working."
Raised in Connecticut, Serling majored in philosophy at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where he took pictures for the campus newspaper. His first job after his 1981 graduation involved photographing cars in Detroit. He headed for New York after six months, landed a spot assisting portrait photographer Arnold Newman, and within a year his work was appearing in such diverse publications as Opera News, Parade, GQ and West Germany's Der Spiegel. His first assignment for PEOPLE, shooting artists and their art at the now-defunct Manhattan club Area, came in 1985.
Even in his off-hours, Serling, who is single, is fond of meditating on his craft. "I'm interested in the reality of the image and how it relates to our illusion," he says. Not that he is concerned with aesthetics exclusively. "I'm also interested," he adds, "in making a living."
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