Why are you taking my picture? Life in the grey zone of photography.

Although I have had a camera for most of my life, it is only in the last 3 years that I have had a quality camera. It is at this point that I expanded my range of photographic subjects from the basic holiday/family/friend “snaps” into something a little more meaningful. When I started out I did not anticipate where I would end up three years later, but I now find myself in the “grey zone” of photography. This is a zone where normal rules of engagement are blurred and motivation and purpose is ambiguous. One is constantly charting a course between perceived legitimacy with the authorities, and a threat to the subject of the photographs. Quite often this can be managed; on occasion this can be reversed. Worst case scenario when all turns negative and one becomes a threat to the authorities and at the same time a threat to the subject of the photograph. Managing and exploiting perceptions is key, particularly when one’s true position is equivocal, as well as being acute to the possible future turn of events.

My first experience of the “grey zone”, which was something of a “baptism of fire”, was the Communist Party Rally in Kiev, Ukraine in May 2008; I was there on holiday. Adopting the perceived role of press photographer I was weaving in and out of the crowd and officials, and then onto the main steps of the rally, right by the politicians, military and party dignatories during the rousing speeches. Not a good time to be self-conscious or show any form of trepidation. There was no turning back – I was “addicted”.

To try and explain more about the “grey zone” it is worth stereotyping the general reasons why people are taking photographs. I have generalised to make a point – the edges are blurred, so this is not an exact categorisation.

“Happy snappers” – these are the millions of people with “point and press” cameras, camera phones and the like, who are taking pictures for fun of family/friends/holidays. The reason for them taking the pictures are clear, the subjects are always consensual, and are nearly always known to the photographer. The quality of the photographic equipment and the quality of the picture is not important.

“Hobbyist” – these are the people in camera clubs ( or possibly photography/art students), who have reasonable quality equipment, are taking “safe” pictures – landscape, buildings, wildlife or arty based subjects, “projects”. This tends not to impose on other people. The equipment and quality of output is important to the individual. The purpose of their pursuit is usually very clear and is in a controlled environment.

“Staffer/salaried /commercial photographer” – these are the people who are employed (sub-contracted) by any number of commercial/media enterprises who are taking photographs as a profession, are most likely to be part of a recognised institution which credits their legitimacy. The purpose of their engagement is simply professional.

“Documentary Freelancer”. This splits into a least 2 types – those that depend on photography as a substantial part of their income…and those that don’t. The former, will undoubtedly be part of a recognised journalist union, or association, and therefore have the full backing of that organisation and will be legitimised by carrying a Press Card ( as indeed will the majority of “staffer” photographers).

The latter will, most likely, not be part of a recognised institution, will not be paid, other than where extremely fortunate, but be potentially involved in similar activities as the pro- “Documentary Freelancer”. In the main, the purpose is personal, but essentially a desire to be involved,witness, and report.

The “Documentary Freelancer” will generally be taking pictures of people and events without the consent of the subjects involved; this is to ensure the integrity of the moment is captured. It is at this point that one comes to a potentially philosophical point of why the picture is being taken – particularly if the single motivation is not money. If the photographer does not have the objective legitimacy of the former categories, then there is a natural suspicion about the purpose. This is exacerbated by the subject not giving consent. Where the subject is taking part in an event then there is an implied consent , however experience does tell that this is not always the case – particularly where the subject may be taking part in a criminal act ( or about to, or is concerned about onward usage). The subject will always assume that the photograph will be used as evidence against them and therefore will be antagonistic. That antagonism may consist of violence or just verbal threats; quite often terms such as “vultures”or “parasites” are used to describe the activities of the photographer. This metaphorically implies that we are feeding off them as carrion, or exploiting them as subjects for our own ends – which is largely true!

The news events quite often involve the Police – in all of its guises from regular officer to the Riot police / Territorial Support Group and the “Documentary Freelancer” can have an ambivalent relationship with them. On most occasions this will be amicable unless the subject-matter is police tactics, when the photographer can also be subjected to the tactics e.g. “kettling” / “containment” and where the distinction between protestor and photographer can become unclear in moments of high tension.

For the ordinary member of the public, it is still unusual to have your picture taken by a complete stranger, especially where this is done in close-up, in the street. Whilst anyone in public should not expect privacy there is something about non-consensual photography that can feel intimidating and an invasion of privacy. Within certain developing communities the belief is that the camera takes your soul – an element of that still exists within moden society. “A picture of me, is for me to give – not for you to take”…as in “we take photographs”. Psychologically one can feel affronted by something being taken, that is so personal, without being consulted – this is one of the key dilemmas that can impact on the “Documentary Freelancer”.

There is something insidious and menacing about a camera being pointed in one’s direction – it has similar qualities to being stared at by a mute, robotic eye, which is unfeeling and cold, reporting what it sees, without opinion. Creating an image that, when de-contextualised, can be read to mean something quite different. This is reinforced by the fact that typically the photographer will not engage with their subject – and so the aloofness can be, in itself antagonistic. I have experienced on a number of occasions, subects getting very wound up by being pursued by these silent, aloof, unsympathetic, picture gathering Photo-bots pursuing, without fear, the “killer” picture that helps define the image/story which is in the mind of the photographer – not to be shared with the subject. How that picture will look, the context in which it will be presented, the words which will be used to describe are all a source of anxiety and therefore intimidating to the subject. It does not feel like an equal relationship; it’s as though facts are being kept close to the chest; inevitably it raises questions.

It is a never-ending, relentless pursuit, or “hunt” for the defining picture – the one that captures a unique symbolic/visual/news moment – decisive, or otherwise – that when captured is satisfaction itself. This is short-lived. The “rush” for the pursuit of the next one is calling, which needs to be better, more hard-fought, closer, more human, violent, emotional, “in the action” than the previous one; that pursuit can anaesthatise one to the danger of the “hunt” powered by the adrenalin, made more numb by the ambivalence of the situation but acute to the opportunities. The possibility that one may be “caught”, confronted, attacked, abused, challenged, excited, stimulated in the pursuit of witnessing and recording a profound, unique, special moment which hits the sweet spot of personal graitification where more risk means more reward, is the pinnacle.

This is life in the “grey zone”

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5 replies

  1. A good piece explaining the tightrope we walk photographing in public.

  2. Excellent piece mate.
    I agree with the difference between those who do what we do ‘professionally’ and those of us who are either working towards that level or just do it for the pure love of it; it’s tricky and those who we photograph do have every right to be cautious.
    Fair enough, wearing a press card helps, but that still doesn’t diffuse every tense situation, especially when some of the big papers run witch-hunts after demos, using press photographs of protesters.

    As for the lack of engagement with the subject, I find it quite uncomfortable at times if I don’t ask for permission for some shots – that may not make them as candid as previously possible, but when snapping protest signs etc., it’s the decent thing to do. I doubt we’d get very far asking some of our ‘other subjects’ for permission though!

    • Andy
      Thanks for your comments. The whole subject is a minefield – I guess we all have to judge on the day what the right approach is and what we feel comfortable with….all very grey in the “grey zone”

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