Skip to main content

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.

Cheers,

Paul

http://www.indigo2photography.co.uk/

Comments

Lorissa said…
Really well said. I couldn't agree more. It is worthwhile to be reminded of this.
maleentjeh said…
Great blog, Paul. Could not agree with you more about respect and dignity when photographing people. The question I always ask myself is 'would I want to see a member of my family photographed in this fashion/situation?'

Thanks,
Marleen
SonDan said…
Excellent, thought-provoking post. Thank you for sharing those thoughts.
Anonymous said…
Hi Paul.
I'm new at this. I was looking for blogs to go to learn photography and I found your page. I have really enjoyed your pictures. Congratulations!
Try to read your articles with the help of some virtual translator.
Un saludo.
This was an excellent post that was well put together.

Popular posts from this blog

The art of writing a caption

A caption in its simplest form is the the title of an image but usually we mean a bit more. A full caption takes the form of descriptive text, usually a few sentences.

A good caption informs us about the things we cannot see and encourages us to look at an image more closely. There is a relationship of mutual benefit and dependence between a well written caption and an image. The caption can bring an image to life by providing context and meaning. It is also the link between the article/story/text and the image.

Magda Indigo has written a good description of a caption here. I agree with her dislike of "untitled". It does show a certain lack of imagination and is not particularly helpful to the viewer. Creating an image is all about trying to communicate something and the caption is vital to help the audience understand an image. It can hugely enhance the viewers experience.

A good caption is a piece of writing that should be concise, accurate, informative and as carefully craft…

All the different types of photography

Welcome to my blog. While you're here why not browse through my extensive library of articles covering everything from tips on how to do things photographic to help with the mental approach you need to become a successful photographer. You'll also find articles with some of my unconventional views. Yes, I've rattled a view cages in my time. Hope you have as much fun reading them as I did writing them.

You can view my more serious work on www.indigo2photography.co.uk

All the different types of photography

With the help of acquaintances on a photographic site I've tried to compile a list of all the different types of photography out there. I'm sure there are many still missing but the list is pretty impressive so far. We have identified around 80 descriptions.

For fun I've highlighted in bold the different types I've done so far...

3D photography
Action photography
Advertising photography
Aerial photography
Amateur photography
Animal photography
Architecture photography

Art of the decisive moment

Capturing the decisive moment requires patience and timing. Good timing depends on your ability to anticipate the right moment.


Welcome to my relaunched blog. You'll notice a new design to mark the moment. What do you think?

The plan is to write far more regularly. Short posts. Easy to read. Focused on a single subject.

This time it's about that vital element. The anticipation of the decisive moment.

As a scene unfolds you're thinking about what is going to happen next. Where are people moving to? What are they doing? What's happening in the background? Do you have the right point of view or do you need to move?

To be ready for the moment you need a prepared mind and a prepared camera. I almost never use burst mode. It's too inaccurate. While the shutter is clattering away you're not seeing what is about to happen. You run the risk that the exact split second you should have snapped is between frames. I prefer the approach of taking a single shot, relying on t…