1942 – Certain People I Know

Where shall I begin? Probably at the beginning, right?

Well, that was Mark Hobson’s slightly provocative blog post “emotionally charged ~ a question“.

Basically his question was, why his fellow bloggers, people like Juha, Markus or, among many others, myself, don’t make pictures of people, and especially “emotionally charged” images, i.e. images that show people in situations that tend to disturb the viewer, tend to stir up emotions, tend to uncover hidden fears.

This is an important question, if for nothing else than for the fact that it is true: we don’t do it. We picture the rural or the urban landscape, graffiti and bicycles, and if people turn up in our images, they are not or only hardly recognizable.

If you have not been there, take the time, head over to Mark’s site and read his post. Don’t skip the comments, there’s some lively discussion with an extraordinarily long but excellent comment by Craig Tanner, and the discussion has also sparked an interesting blog post by Juha.

In my own comment I just stated that “I feel photographing strangers is problematic on so many levels, it simply does not give me the thrill or the satisfaction to compensate for the hassle“, and I feel that I probably should go into greater detail.

Craig is certainly right. I do fear asking strangers if I may take their photograph. No doubt about it and I don’t doubt Craig’s proposition that it may free the photographer to fight those fears. I may even try it, in fact it is on my list of things to do, it is only not high priority (How’s that for procrastination, huh???).

Thus I fully accept Craig’s point, I fully accept Mark’s (very different) point, but let me ask a return question:

What exactly is it that makes you take images of people?

Mark followed up his own post with “civilized ku # 2074 ~ picturing your life“, where he comes to the conclusion, that he “makes (his) most emotionally imbued pictures (sometimes highly charged) when (he) engages in the act of picturing (his) life“, an act in which he “must be engaged on some level – other than the simple desire to make pictures – with the people (he) pictures“. Thus Mark seems to strive for a kind of deeper authenticity in his portraits or simply images containing people, something that is absolutely in line with the way he pictures inanimate subjects or landscapes.

And Craig? I don’t know. Sure, I believe in the therapeutic effect of fighting one’s inner resistance and of asking people on the street whether it’s OK to take their picture. But then, what else is it? I mean, there are other ways of self or group therapy that are equally effective, and this raises the question what exactly the role of photography is. Is it a therapeutic tool? Or is it naive on my part to assume that you can analytically separate Art from the Artist’s soul? Again the question: what is it that makes you photograph people?

I take a lot of images of bicycles, but it is not that I am emotionally attached to them, they just happen to visually interest me. They are lines, circles, ellipses, and they are very pure forms of that, because they have the semi-transparency of wire frames. Thus my interest in bicycles is due to their geometric qualities.

In that light, again, what is it that makes you photograph people?

Regarding Mark’s post and Craig’s comment I have two answers and a promise.

The promise is easy: I’ll try it, only not yet, but I will. I guess Craig is right, I guess that doing this exercise (and even if one only sees it as an exercise, which I believe it is not) will enrich me.

The answer to Craig is, that things are probably different here in Europe. I firmly believe that the US are crazy as shit, but in certain respects we can more than compete.

Today I read a discussion on one of the most influential German photography blogs, Martin Gommel’s KWERFELDEIN. Basically his question was: Imagine that you find an image of yourself, taken on the street without your knowledge, on the internet. How would you react?

The majority of comments was at least critical, I’d say that about a third of the commenters suggested they would consider legal action against the photographer, sometimes depending on their own judgement of the artistic merits of the image.

Mind you, that is the same crowd that in majority clamors for for more CCTV surveillance and for more totalitarian power of government and police. Oh well. I’d be glad to have their problems.

But given that that’s the state of affairs, how exactly do you expect classic street photography to prosper? I often hear that our grand children won’t have a way to see how life in our streets was, simply because no one dared to picture it.

Yes, Craig’s way to approach people beforehand may work. It may work better in the US though, but that’s a gut feeling, that’s something I’ve yet to find out. On the other hand, I am absolutely sure that this does not cover the whole spectrum. There are images that you can’t have when you ask beforehand, no way, and among them are important images.

But again, this only touches Mark’s original question tangentially.

“Emotionally charged”?

I’ll show you what “emotionally charged” means.

Do you know Gary Woodard? I’ve been following his blog for years. You know how that is, sometimes I manage to keep up with people’s posts, sometimes they pile up (as they do now) and it may be that I don’t look into a particular blog for months.

Gary used to picture his wife Janet. Janet used a wheel chair, I don’t know the exact diagnosis, but I think there was a kind of dementia involved. Gary used to picture his wife when they went out to McDonalds or on any other everyday occasion, and sometimes I thought it was a little boring. Still, it fascinated me and, although irregularly, I kept seeing and reading. In a way I had a feeling of knowing Janet.

One time, after an especially long pause I came back and found that Janet was dead. I can remember my urge to condole and how I couldn’t. I was struck with fear. Gary’s posts about Janet’s passing, his pictures, all that was incredibly powerful – and it completely muted me. It brought up all my own fears of loss, all that I constantly fight and try to control, and they ran wild and they rendered me ineffective.

Every year Gary has made a photo book with images of Janet, three of them are still available on Blurb. Browse through volumes one and three chronologically, they are fully available in preview. Then go on to volume four and literally see Janet dying.

“Emotionally charged”? THAT’s what I call emotionally charged. Look at it, read it, and if you can credibly hold back your tears, I’ll happily attribute you a heart of stone.

“Emotionally charged”? It will happen some time, thank you, I am glad for every day in between.

Gary, thank you for the experience you gave me, even though I never commented, either because I felt too busy or because I was too moved to be able to.

The Song of the Day is “Certain People I Know” from Morrissey’s 1992 album “Your Arsenal”. Hear it on YouTube.

9 thoughts on “1942 – Certain People I Know”

    1. Cool 🙂 Never heard about it, but then, I have my Flickr user only to be able to give the occasional comment.

      It’s interesting to see how those groups on Flickr work and the results they bear. There is for instance the genre of 365 images, an image per day with the sometimes quite fascinating sub-genre of 365 self portraits. Some of them really grow into art.

      Other Flickr inventions like the photo walk (at least that’s where I first heard of it) stay completely alien to me 🙂

  1. Thanks for writing this, and pointing out to Gary Woodard, and his picturing of life. Reading this posting was one of those unique moments when you realize with a shudder what a deep, deep vein of shared experience connects all people; but we are not always conscious of it.

  2. Thanks, Andreas.

    What Mark pointed out with acute, provocative words you set back into the correct (for me) framework. I would never deny that there are reasons to picture hardship, suffering, death, and photographers like James Nachtwey have done it in perfection. But for a good part I cannot bring myself to even view more than a limited number of these pictures – exactly as you said:

    “Emotionally charged”? It will happen some time, thank you, I am glad for every day in between.

    Most probably it is a question of personal development how to deal with this challenge. I am not there yet.

  3. While it is OK to push yourself in new directions, they should be directions you are genuinely interested in pursuing. Sometimes you won’t know something isn’t right for you until you try it, but then again sometimes you do.

    It’s an old saying that you should photograph what you love, and I think that is true in spades. Those pictures will have much more “soul” to them than anything where you are not really into it. I genuinely love photographing people (not always, but sometimes strangers), so that feels right for me. But if I didn’t, I don’t think it would be right to force it on myself. Shooting time is too precious for that.

  4. I have followed this post to Gary Woodward’s blog and spent long moments with the Blurb Books on his dear Janet — the thoughts and impact are still simmering within. I think we each follow our own paths perhaps searching for a similar destination — to understand. But sometimes perhaps we need to push ourselves a little out of our comfort zones to find each our own “deepest recesses of being.” Thanks and I have much to think about.

  5. Another tiny aspect: some moments simply don’t need a photographer (or worse: a hobby’ist). As simple as that.

    I will never understand why some people feel the urge to dump their inner moments into the net. And I despise (most) people who do that with other peoples moments – unless the have a very good reason.

  6. I have spent a number of hours reading the various blog entries, comments and links around this topic and it has been most interesting. Discovering Gary Woodard even more so.
    Mark Hobson’s posts are often in themselves emotionally charged and his view was well in character and as thought provoking as ever.
    Your view Andreas is, as always, more balanced, at least to my eye.
    For me any photo of any subject has the potential to charge me up with emotions, whether the images in question be abstract, landscape, street, portrait or whatever. It’s simply a question of what memory they will trigger. Having said that, there is no doubt that the odds of getting emotionally charged by a photo increases many fold if people are involved. In such cases empathy comes into play and that is quite a powerful force (marketers make great use of it).
    However no one really asked what Mark meant by “emotionally charged”. The photo on his post and the examples given–family portrait next to mother’s coffin–suggests that perhaps he is only looking at one side of the emotional spectrum. In that case I think there are plenty of reasons why few people do that kind of photography and these are not just the reasons given by Craig Tanner. When we’re talking about documenting life’s tragedies most of us are preoccupied with the more pressing situation of the immediate moment. Even if the situation does not directly involve us, empathy can put us right in there and which f-stop to use becomes the last thing on our mind.
    This is not to say that every one is like that. Thankfully there are people out there, such as Mark by the sound of it and Gary Woodard too, who can distance themselves from the situations just enough so that they can photograph them and then share them either through blogs or through books, magazines and newspapers. I say thankfully because I see a need for this kind of documentation of humanity. It reminds us that life’s biggest problem isn’t the latest change Zuckerberg made to Facebook or that an earthquake in Japan delayed the arrival of the X100 camera.
    Anyway, I would suggest that most amateur photographers shoot out of a particular personal need and I suspect many shoot out of a need to connect with something quiet and calm as an antidote to their already emotionally charged lives. Craig Tanner is right, I feel, about the benefits of overcoming fears and the joy that can be had in photographing strangers in the street but that is quite different to photographing the “emotionally charged” situations that I think Mark is talking about. There would be nothing gained in forcing yourself to photograph such events. If the need to photograph such events doesn’t arise then don’t; odds are you’re already emotionally charged as are the people around you. In such situations you have nothing to prove to anyone.

    1. Also you must not forget that Mark has spent his professional life with a camera. I’ve been photographing for little more than seven years now and it is already a deeply ingrained habit, but that’s nothing against 30 or more years.

      With Gary it was different. He spent his life with Janet and he documented that life. Nothing unexpected, just what he had to see coming, and then it came, just like it comes to all of us, some time. This kind of documentation is something that seems quite natural to me, at least for a photographer.

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