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.
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.