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.


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