This assignment comes with a ‘health warning’, reminding students that they are responsible for themselves and to think carefully before attempting the exercise.
I certainly felt quite apprehensive about it so decided to take a less stressful approach by photographing a joint NewYear’s Eve and Birthday party. Having been invited to bring a camera along this removed any safety concerns allowing me to concentrate on the photography.
The approach reminded me of the work of Nan Goldin and Wolfgang Tillmans who also operated from a position of trust within their respective social circles.
The unexpected challenge I encountered was that as soon as people saw me raise the camera to my eye, they would pose as though for a selfie making candid shots actually quite hard to obtain, as in these two:
I countered this by pushing up the ISO to 3,3200 or 6,400 and by using Liveview I could act more stealthily by not raising the camera to my eye.
While this was satisfactory I wanted to push myself further in this exercise so I decided to attempt it again one week later on a trip to London with a general theme of ‘Going Places’.
Here I was quite fearful of being challenged, maybe aggressively. I was conscious that people would pick up on it if I looked at all ‘dodgy’, secretive or uneasy with a camera, and so I was ironically creating a self-defeating spiral of worry in my head.
Transit Series:Two of the following images were inspired by Lukas Kuzma’s Transit Series:
Here I soon learned a few things:
- Firstly, as long as you are not too overt about it many people in London simply don’t care. The greatest impediments to getting usable shots was my own hesitation
- Steichen’s famous advice to Robert Frank – of getting closer to the subject – holds very true
- The perfect ‘stealth’ camera is actually the mobile phone. Everybody expects me to be carrying one and so it does not look at all out of place. Perhaps this is Robert Frank’s ‘black painted Leica’ of our times. Ali Shms makes this point persuasively through his iPhone street photography: https://www.instagram.com/ali.shms/
In summary, I only came into conflict with one person all day: myself. Two of my favourite images taken in this session were arguably not the most flattering for the subjects – yawning on the Tube and a lady stood waiting for a train toilet. Personal morality comes into play. Was I humiliating or exploiting these people? “What is the photographer entitled to record and under what circumstances?” (Angier, 2015: p89)
I decided that it depended on my motive. As I was not looking to make any gain from bribery, coercion or embarrassment my conscience was clear. Ultimately I think the test would be whether I would be embarrassed to show the photographs to the subject if they asked. If I would not be, then it was ok to take it.
But the sense of accomplishment I found with the better images was profound. This feels a bit like an extreme sport – a sense of fear and excitement…and a desire to do it again soon.
Angier, R. (2015) Train your gaze: A practical and theoretical introduction to portrait photography. 2nd edn. New York: Fairchild Books & Visuals.