The Photographer As Predator


 

The Question

 

Let’s face it – every artist is a predator.   Writers use their childhoods, their mothers, their life experiences (Tennessee Williams and the sordid South, Hemingway and the Spanish Civil War).  Painters use atrocities (Picasso and Guernica) and their mistresses.  We all take from our surroundings and companions to feed our art.  Often, the result is beautiful and restorative.  Sometimes the relationship is symbiotic; consider Alfred Steiglitz’ erotic images of Georgia O’Keefe that built her career.  And often it’s downright parasitic – let’s not even talk about the National Enquirer and the paparazzi.

When I’m out on the street with my camera, I often see people in terms of images – and I’m hunting.  No jungle cat with an empty belly could be more alert for its prey.  The temptation is always to shoot someone – anyone – who would make a dramatic image.  This is the essential moral dilemma of the photographer: how far are we willing to go to make a statement?

Much has been written about this dilemma.  I think that this question was best summed up by Ruth Fremson, a photographer for the New York Times, who has see much suffering through her lens:

“I don’t set out to exploit another person’s suffering in order to make art,” she said. “I set out to tell a story, to explain a situation, to enhance viewers’ understanding of the world around us.

“The way a photojournalist can drive home the severity of a situation, for readers to fully understand them, is to make the most compelling image possible from an event — an image that will make someone stop for a moment, take it in and give the situation some thought.

“A photojournalist who has mastered the visual tools of composition, the use of light and color and the ability to capture the ‘decisive moment,’ will be able to produce a photo so compelling that it can be described as beautiful — or perhaps even as art — even if the subject matter is one of pain and suffering.

“Interestingly, museums around the world are filled with art that depicts human suffering, often based on real events in history…”

I struggle with this question every day that I am on the street with my camera, and constantly try to balance my art with my sense of my subjects’ dignity.  Yet even in this process, often the most rewarding part of the experience is the connection with the people in my pictures.  I met this gentleman sitting in a doorway on Seattle’s Broadway, itself a rich palette of street cafes, college students, and many who spend their days on the streets.  Many of the individuals one meets on benches and doorways are obviously in pain, and if I photograph them, it is from a distance and in a manner that preserves their anonymity.  But many, if one stops to visit, are delightful and original.  This gentleman gave me a quick smile as I stopped to talk, happily agreed to have his picture taken, and even offered me a choice of messages on his sign!  I was late for a meeting, and unfortunately, could not stop to visit with him.

This image was taken with the Ensign 16-20 on Kodak VC-160, and appeared in the Fall 2010 issue of Canadian Camera magazine.

References:

Estrin, James.  LENS- Photography, Video and Visual Journalism: Forum – Suffering and Art.  http://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/06/16/forum/.

Johannes, A-M.  News Media’s Depiction of Human Suffering.  http://amjohannes.wikidot.com/news-media-s-depiction-of-human-suffering.

Reinhardt, M. et al.  “Beautiful Suffering: Photography and the Traffic in Pain.”  University of Chicago Press, 2007.

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