this too
Tuesday, June 14, 2005
  My friends' feet

I wouldn’t show more of this photo of my friends than their feet, not without asking their permission - which I’m not likely to do, as none of these people know about the blog. That much is easy. But there’s a lot I’m not too sure about when it comes to photographing people.

Looking at the photo essays on young gang members in Los Angeles and San Salvador which I mentioned here last week made me think a lot about this. I enjoyed these very much, found viewing them on line particularly involving and felt this was a powerful way of using and viewing photos. I enjoyed them because they were a personal, close-up view of people very different from me. I also wondered if it was quite ok staring so closely at these strangers in moments of anger, desolation, violence. They must have consented and interacted closely with the photographer over quite some time. Nonetheless, somehow, looking at these still photos raised more questions than viewing a documentary film. And looking at them on my own computer screen raised more questions than seeing them displayed on a gallery wall. Perhaps something to do with the way they came entirely under my control on my computer screen and I could view them as I wanted, for as long as I wanted.

Even when I got a digital camera last Christmas and started taking photos (mostly motivated in fact by the dawning notion of starting my own blog), I thought I probably wouldn’t photograph people. It seemed too difficult – hard enough at first to get an inanimate object framed and in focus. I’d hardly ever taken photos before – always had enough artistic sense to disdain random snapshots and too much impatience to learn any better.

I thought of a man I used to know, a journalist. Near the end of his distinguished career, budget cuts meant that instead of sending a photographer with him on foreign stories his editor thrust a camera into his hand and told him to do it himself. With an automatic camera and little technical interest, he was very good. He had a fine aesthetic sense, but mostly he was good at engaging with people, getting up close, putting them at their ease – all the stuff that stood him in good stead as a reporter. I didn’t think I could do that. I’m quite slow to engage with people, especially strangers. Still, as I took more photos, I found that I did want to try.

So when I recently went on an outing with four friends it seemed like a good opportunity, and I took loads of pictures throughout the day. After a while they grew used to me wielding the camera and I got some nice candid shots. Also some touching ones. One in particular: quite by chance, I caught V in a tender, vulnerable expression I’d seen only once before, when he sat a small child on his knee and talked to him. I was quite surprised and pleased with the photos. Spent a while staring at them on screen, cropping and adjusting them. Thinking: hey, yes, this has something of how I see you, I 'got' you. Then I began to feel uncomfortable, as though I’d taken something and given nothing in return, maybe more then they’d want me to have. I don’t know whether to show these photos to their subjects – uneasy if I do and if I don’t.

Partly, it’s just about being new to this hobby. Something I have to feel my way through and get used to. Some things, of course, are clear. I would always ask both friends and strangers if they mind being photographed. Except perhaps the odd individual who walks through my shot in a public place, or someone observed in a deliberately public act where it obviously goes with the territory. But it often isn’t that clear. Often friends, especially, may not like to say no, but may actually feel uncomfortable, or intruded upon, or less relaxed than they might on an occasion that’s meant to be fun.

When I started taking photos, a friend told me about someone else she knows who took up photography not so long ago, surprised herself and all who knew her by loving it, studying it seriously. ‘She did a portrait of me’, my friend said with a deep frown, ‘you know, the warts-and-all kind’. She was clearly unhappy about this, but probably hadn’t said so.

Then again, any discomfort may sometimes be purely my projection. That doesn’t mean, though, that it’s not a problem. I like to stare, to take in people with my eyes, to notice as much as possible about them. This is sometimes a positive thing: most people like to be seen, really seen and appreciated and found interesting, as an engaging story of Tamar's recently reminded me - and I’m good at that. And it’s sometimes a very negative thing: grabbing something of a person without giving anything of myself, without making any social effort. Well, I guess that’s exactly what voyeurism is… and I fear I’m no stranger to it.

I suspect there are no answers, just a need to stay aware of the complexities.
An interesting post, as I have been thinking lately that I need to venture more into places where there are people. Most of my photos are of plants and the places they grow. But I really should go into the territory you describe. And yes, there are issues to be considered. Thanks for heading me in the right direction.
Jean, you seem so at ease with the camera and often your pictures tell a story in such a subtle and gentle way - sometimes joyous and at times even sad. I think that writers and artists are somehow always going to be voyeurs. It's how we get to know what and whom we are writing about.
There's good advice above me here. You do seem at ease with the camera and I suspect you are more at ease with strangers than you realize.
There's a reason why I photograph ivy and cars and brick walls...capturing people in all their complexity is difficult. And yet when someone has the knack for it, it's magical.
hmmmm. I remember that the first thing I did with a camera was to photograph people. I don't remember the specifics of how I got the camera (it was a used very early Polaroid) but it was winter and each shot cost a lot of $$$, so I was careful and the pictures were static. Things changed quickly, though, and even by the summer (I was 12 then) I was using it to chronicle friends and people in my environment, not that differently (in some ways) than I do now.

In my experience people's attitudes towards being photographed are complex, and actually vary a lot from culture to culture. I try to respect how I know people feel, but there are times where the pictures say something about the person that maybe they won't like, but still can't just be forgotten. I have a lot of those pictures, actually, and they are the tough ones.

But photos have time on their side too, because as it passes people look back and see themselves more essentially. There are a lot of pictures that become kinder with time, and I don't mean that just in a visual sense of looking back at youth. They can, for instance, be of friends in a difficult period of their life, but looking back it becomes more about the spirit and less about the experience.

You need to do what you're doing, to use the camera and find out what feels right to you. But take the photos without thinking too much, you can do that enough afterwards!!

- jonz
I love this photo, actually, just the way it is.

A portrait of a person, sans visage, can tell so much about the person, it can tell an elliptical tale that might otherwise be lost.

I value all your comments a lot.

Jon, no, I don't stop and ponder the ethics of a particular photo opportunity before I take the picture! Indeed, I'm in a very different space from this when actually taking photos.

A-W, yes I liked the feet picture (well actually legs, but that doesn't alliterate) and am certainly keen on unusual and partial views and angles and intrigued by the challenge of taking illustrative but discreet shots for the blog. But I'm keen on full-on, probing views too.
It probably says something about me, that I almost never take photographs of people (and actively avoid being in photographs, too).

I wonder if you saw the "Moments of Intimacy, Laughter and Kinship (M.I.L.K.) exhibition when it was in Regent's Park a couple of years ago? I was working just round the corner at the time and kept going back for more. There were some really wonderful photos there.
Interesting discussion; thanks.
Your friends don't know about the blog??? The Secret Life of Jean?
Actually, I've only very recently told friends who live in the same town as me about the blog (I told friends who lived at a distance about it, as a way of keeping them posting). I probably haven't told people who live in the same town as me about it much because I fear what they'll think about my take on things. The whole public/privacy/secrecy thing around blogging is interesting.
No, nobody knows about my blog - I live alone and I have an office of my own, so nobody sees me doing it, and I just haven't told anyone. At first it was because I didn't know if I'd keep it up - not known for my staying power. Then, because I'd told no one at the beginning, there was never an obvious time to do so. I thought, well if I keep it up for a month... then, if I keep it up for three months... and now it's four, and I still haven't told anyone. I think it's probably time I did, cos it's starting to be weird.
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Location: London, UK

Freelance copy-editor and translator. Keen on language, literature, photography, art, music, buddhist meditation and the countryside.

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