“Photographers often lean on their cameras in one of two ways—as a passport, a means for entering new worlds (both geographic and emotional); but also as a shield, a way to create some distance between themselves and their surroundings“, Alexander Strecker
Alexander Strecker interviewed Gioia de Bruijn for Lensculture. The interview explores the idea of when a photographer is actively involved in the scene before them, or whether to be detached.
This struck me as very relevant to the upcoming work in Part 1 of I&P. I’m very conscious – particularly after the first Exercise of photographing strangers – how often I use the camera as a shield. “The camera definitely creates a barrier – once you are invested in operating the apparatus, you can’t be simultaneously invested in the situation“. I wanted to explore this further to understand myself better and help overcome my fears.
In interview, De Bruijn takes the view that “standard documentary photography voyeuristic, even de-humanizing, preferring to throw herself fully and completely into situations that attract her interest“. This is explored further along with looking at how the relationship between the general public and photographer might now be changing in the digital era.
Her latest documentary work, ‘Weekend Warriors’, is shot in the aftermath of various parties she attended in Amsterdam. She explains, “I wasn’t an outsider looking in—I was part of it, and I think that’s the only way.”. Likening the alternative to be “watching monkeys at the zoo”, De Bruijn prefers to be on the inside where the action is. There are strong similarities in the work with that of Nan Goldin here – infiltrating a nightlife sub culture and being trusted enough to see it for all that it is.
I can see how this ‘being on the inside’ is the only really way to have absolute empathy with the situation you are photographing.
This then opens up the question of public attitudes towards the camera in this situation. Historically the camera has been seen as a passport to gain entry to a situation, but is that now changing?
Everyone now photographs everything. We Instagram, Facebook and Tweet our meals, movements and private experiences. Laszlo Moholy-Nagy famously said “The illiterate of the future will be the man who does not understand photography” (Badger, 2014, inside front cover). Surely this makes it much easier for photographers since everyone expects everyone else to be taking photographs anyway?
De Bruijn asserts that the opposite might in fact be true, saying that “anonymity almost does not exist any more”, so people are becoming more camera shy than ever. They might end up in a compromising website, a prospective employer seeing a photo of them on social media. You are tagged on the photo with your name to complete strangers around the world. I certainly know several people close to me who do not want their photos on any social media. She finishes this part of the interview with the lament that “But honestly, I think its only going to get harder. Having a camera in the future may not afford you much additional access at all“.
Her approach to circumventing this is to shoot film with “such old and beaten up cameras that people don’t take me too seriously”
This all led me to reflect on when I feel comfortable or otherwise with a camera in public. I am happy when invited to take photographs or when I am part of a group experiencing something (a pagan festival in Glastonbury, my local pub, a party, a wedding). But I’m very uncomfortable photographing strangers. I think this interview goes to the heart of why: In the first set of situations I am supposed to be there with my camera. For the latter, I am invading their personal lives, using my camera as the entrance ticket to witness it. I’m not invited in. Of course there’s a raised expectation then – your event photos are expected to be good because you are using a ‘proper camera’. I guess I got used to that from my former life so view it as a lesser pressure than invading someone else’s social space.
I also reflected on De Bruijn’s use of an ‘old beat up camera’. I came to digital very late in the day, only stopping my work as a wedding photographer when film became obsolete and the appetite in the wedding market was to join a never-ending treadmill of the most mega-pixels and fastest delivery of .jpgs on a memory stick possible. Disillusioned, I turned to landscapes reluctantly moving to digital only a few years ago. Since then I can see how I’ve inadvertently got sucked onto the same treadmill. A 36 megapixel full frame body is great since in my mind it is a ‘proper’ camera without any crop factor issues and I notice that I’ve finally stopped saying ‘its not as good as Velvia 50 used to be on the Bronny’! But I’ve only had this body for a few months. Virtually all of my work that has been sold, appreciated and hung in an exhibition was taken on a body with only half of that resolution. Nobody complains about the quality of them. As a Pentax user I am only too aware of the danger of ego-driven challenges from the ‘What? You don’t use Canon or Nikon!’ hobbyists. I note that I often respond by admitting that I used to use Canon when a pro but I find Pentax is better for me – I’ve never looked back. This is all true, but hints at a need to justify why I went a different way to the herd. Ego.
I noted that De Bruijn describes herself as uncomfortable with groups of people, preferring the company of individuals. I can again very much identify with this. Here she picks up the camera as a shield rather than a passport “in order to diffuse the anxiety for myself and my brain”. We are probably all the same inside – the differentiator is probably nothing more than some of us, like De Bruijn, pick up the camera anyway, walk into the room and just do it.
Perhaps it is time to be the guy with a old camera and see if I get invited to more the parties – the invitation, of course, has always been there for me. It is just that my own negative self-talk may decline it on my behalf.
Badger, G. (2014) The genius of photography. London, United Kingdom: Quadrille Publishing.