Thursday, March 12, 2009

Do we violate people when we photograph them?

Whenever you pick up your camera and take a picture of someone you have to realise that your image is a record of a moment that will be passed down through history.

Your picture can have a profound effect on the life of the person you have photographed, their family and the public. One example that illustrates this is Dorothea Lange's iconic photograph “Migrant Mother”. Jeffrey Dunn has written a great article about the affect of this picture on all concerned.

I find it fascinating when people who played a prominent role in a famous photograph are rediscovered, often unaware of the role the image made of them played in history. A recent example was revealed in the BBC Wales TV documentary where Professor Dai Smith traced a miner who described how he and two colleagues had met renowned photographer W. Eugene Smith on their way home from work at the pit and had been instructed on how to pose for one of the photos published in Life in 1950. The miner remembered the day he was photographed quite clearly and that Smith offered a little guidance as to how they should stand and where they had to look. Smith was trying to communicate his story. The village backdrop, the miners, the light, their gestures, all contributed to the story he was building.

Smith used the miners, as Lange used Migrant mother to visually communicate the truth about a situation. In a sense photographers direct the action and their subjects become actors playing a role, which may or may not reflect their actual personal situation. The photographed subjects may be quite unwitting in their complicity and indeed the photographer may not fully realise the truth they are communcating in that moment. It may come out in the brilliant clarity afforded later by history.

I do not agree with Susan Sontag's statement, “To photograph people is to violate them,” in her book On Photography. The word violate is far too negative. Art and journalism are always an interpretation of reality. Through this interpretation we hope to uncover the truth. I do not think that most people who have been photographed feel that they have been violated. They are usually willing participants in the story and like the miner do not feel strongly one way or the other. Some will feel the truth of their story has been misapropriated but like the Migrant mother's family eventually they may come to realise the role an image played in history was important.

Photography is an incredibly powerful medium. My wife and fellow photographer recently got back in touch with a famous dancer she had photographed twelve years ago. He saw the portrait she had made and he became emotional. He said his whole life since that moment flashed in front of his eyes. The image had a profound effect on him. He has asked Magda to make another portrait.

Photography is about time. The split second the image was taken and the way that image resonates through time. Pick up any book of historical images and you can feel the ghosts speaking to you.

This power to communicate through images means that as photographers we have to realise that we have moral duty to treat our subjects with respect and dignity. We should tell the truth of their situation as well as provide our audience with the the wider social truth of their circumstances. This extends to the way we present our images and caption them and most importantly we should feel the heavy hand of history resting on our shoulders every time we push the shutter with another human being in front of our lens.


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