A Moment May Have Many Meanings

I'm Saying Nothing
I’m Saying Nothing (Katoomba Australia April 2014)


Street Photography is about (in part) the recording and sharing of those supposedly ordinary moments when people are doing “ordinary” things, when they are talking, walking, working, or in some other ways engaged in their ordinary activities and simply going about their daily lives.

Just like the couple in the accompanying photo. Clearly they are sharing a joke. The guy is keeping his mouth firmly closed while the woman is having a good laugh. Probably at his expense. Is she teasing him? Is he keeping quiet about something that she’s anxious to hear? Are they on the way to a surprise that she’s trying to tease out of him? Whatever is going on, this is one of those ordinary moments that has transcended itself: it is no longer ordinary; it is special.

Special because it’s clearly an intimate moment being shared by these two. Special, too, because it opens up to us, the viewers, all sorts of possibilities. We can guess what is going on, what the joke might be and why the guy is keeping quiet. And, in that guessing, we put our own interpretations onto this lovely image and place ourselves into this intimate scene. We bring to the viewing and reflection on the scene our own histories, our own memories, dreams, fantasies. Our own ideas and projections.

But, does this mean we are changing the “reality” of this scene? No, I don’t think it does. There is a limit to what the camera can record of any scene. In this particular picture, it has recorded a visual representation of these two at this moment and it can only really record what it “sees” as a still camera must. We can’t hear the conversation; we don’t know what’s just happened or what will happen in the moments after the image is made. When you think about it, it is pretty much required that we bring some kind of interpretation to any photograph if we are to work out what is, or might be, going on.

Whatever we project onto the scene in this photograph, whatever stories we come up with will contribute to the creation of a new or other reality. It by no means takes away from the “true” reality of the moment this image represents (any photo is of course only a representation of what is photographed; it is not the thing itself). You could say that our viewing of this or any other photograph simply adds layers of meaning.

I realize, of course, I am saying nothing new here. This concept of “we all bring our own interpretations to the viewing of a photograph” is well known. I guess what I am saying is this: it’s okay to add our own layers of meaning, even to a photograph of a so-called ordinary moment in the lives of the so-called ordinary people. And it doesn’t really matter if those layers of meaning have little or no relationship to whatever the “true reality” of that moment might be. This opportunity to create new meanings is one of the great gifts that street photography offers to us all, whether we are the ones making the photos, appearing in them or, those viewing them. Perhaps most especially to the viewer.

There is one condition we should place on this all being okay: Any new layer of meaning we add to an image, any new reality we attribute to a photograph, must be done with a good heart. The process must be imbued with a spirit of goodwill. Or, to put it another way: the interpretation of a (Humanist) street photograph should be informed by Love, Compassion, and Empathy.


Camera Shy? It’s a good question. Reflections on pressing the shutter

Camera Shy_.jpgCamera Shy? (Nottingham England September 2013)

A lot of ongoing discussion in my line of work (street and documentary photography), and a trigger for the occasional heated debate,  centers around these two questions: do people object to being photographed? Are we invading their privacy/space? Good questions, of course, and all of us need to think about them. Not just once either: we need to continue to reflect on these and other questions as the world changes, as we change. Just part of the work of the artist really.

Now, in this photograph (made in Nottingham England a couple of years ago) we see three young women in school uniforms. Two are hiding behind an umbrella, while the third, who has a smile on her face, peeks out from behind her hand. Sort of hiding, sort of not. 

In fact, the two hiding behind the umbrella were also laughing. So, as I moved to make the photograph, I made the judgement that they weren’t really hiding. They were just fooling around. So I pressed the shutter. 

Of course, most people I photograph don’t actually see me, so how can I know whether they would object to being photographed? I do not have the simplistic approach of: “if they don’t object, they are agreeing”, that would make it very easy to do pretty much anything I pleased. I don’t hold at all with that idea. In my view it is unethical and wrong.

No, it’s more subtle than that. It is more about intuition and being fully present right in the moment. If I am truly right there and then (as I like to say) I just know if a person would object or would approve of being photographed.

The great humanist photographer and poet (among many other things) Abraham Menashe talks about waiting to “be invited” to make the photograph. It’s about being there as I say, right in the moment and suspending judgement, and waiting. I can’t count the number of times when I’ve put the camera to my eye, framed what looks like a great photograph of a person who hasn’t seen me, only to put the camera down again. I usually don’t know why; it just happens that way. I haven’t been invited. At some level, that person and I have connected and they haven’t invited me; they have not given me permission to make their photograph. 

In this image it was an easy decision; the choice obvious. It isn’t always so. But, If I am fully present, suspend judgement and approach the work with compassion, love and empathy, then usually the answer makes itself known. Do I always get it right? Of course not. But, like everything else in life, it is one’s intention that is of key importance. And with practice comes more and more success and the joy of a shared moment between me and the people I photograph, whether they “know” I’m there or not.