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The picture not taken

I carry a camera all the time because you never know when something interesting is going to happen.

Like today, for instance. I was walking through the construction zone that is Bank Street, when suddenly I spotted, walking towards me, a man pushing a stroller with a grown up dwarf in it. I think there was a baby or a toddler in the stroller too, but it all happened so quickly I barely had time for a double take.

My hand automatically reached for my camera, but then my eyes met the dwarf’s eyes and I couldn’t go through with it.

I suppose when you take a picture of a complete stranger with their knowledge, you’re saying “There’s something unusual about you.”

And that ‘unusualness’ could be anything: beauty, ugliness, deformity, eccentricity…..anything.

I think I would feel funny if I was walking down the street and a stranger suddenly pulled out their camera and took a picture of me. I’d wonder why. I’d probably feel paranoid.

But I guess if you’re a dwarf in a stroller, you probably already know you look a little unusual, so maybe it’s not a big deal if somebody whips out a camera. At least you know why you’re visually interesting.

I’m self-conscious on either end of the camera. I am a far worse photographer because I won’t take the pictures head-on; I end up taking them from a safe distance or from a safe angle.

What is it about photography that makes us feel so self-conscious?

14 comments to The picture not taken

  • I don’t know the answer to your question, but I wouldn’t have taken the picture either.

  • The truly great photographers have no such compunction. Which is why most of us will never be more than mediocre when it comes to photographing people.

  • And it’s why we have zoom lenses. And swivel view screens like you have on your camera.

  • It wasn’t me in the stroller.

    I’d never share a ride with a baby.

  • The dwarf doth protest too much!

  • I struggle with this all the time. What I’m realizing is that most great photographers ask permission and interact with their subjects. Street photography is a bit of a different genre. I’ve been blogging about this issue at my photography blog. I’ve collected some quotes on the subject, like it’s really a compliment to want to take someone’s picture, it means you think they’re interesting. But I think the ethical thing to do is to ask permission. Then you have to learn how to engage your subject so you don’t get awkward wooden shots.

  • The legal situation is clear cut: if the subject is on a public thoroughfare, or can be photographed from a public thoroughfare without poking a zoom lens as long as a cannon over a wall, they’re fair game. But the law is a blunt instrument.

    Obviously, Zoom, as you, David B. & cinnamon gurl suggest, the personal and ethical situation is far less well-defined. Or comfortable.

    Which is why, although temptation or automatic reflexes have sometimes rushed me past my own more thoughtful limits before I really think, hundreds of the best pictures I’ve never taken exist only in my head. When I look at them, they’re still pretty good. We don’t really need to document every image. Some make darn good stories in the retelling – like this one.

  • I think that taking the photograph, to you, would have felt like the equivalent of pointing and shouting “hey, everybody, look at this weird guy!” And with the internet, that pointing would have been global and eternal.
    A private moment in his life, captured and put up for the world to see, beyond his control, and he would be unable to offer any defense. Such as, “I have a spinal injury that prevents me from walking any distance – would you think this was funny if a wheelchair had been available?”
    Maybe it’s just my own paranoia at being photographed – in 95% of the pictures taken of me, EVER, I have my eyes half closed, so I look drunk, drugged, or psychotic – or some combination of the three…

  • XUP

    Aha! This is exactly why, the other day I came back from lunch and said to my coworkers. “You know what would be cool? A camera built into my sun glasses, so that when I saw something interesting I could just look at the interesting subject and reach up as if to adjust my sunglasses and snap a photo. Maybe a still photo from the right lens and a short video on the left lens, depending on the nature of the subject.” Really, that should be doable, no? The digital mechanisms are small enough to fit into the arms of sunglasses. Probably such a thing already exists for spies or something.

  • Jenny in Duluth

    I think for me, taking a picture is like staring REALLY HARD at something. So, I really only take pictures in situations where it would also not be uncomfortable to stare. Sometimes it’s possible to stare surreptitiously, but usually cameras are more obvious, alas! I like the sunglasses idea. (how do you spell “surreptitiously”??) I’ve also learned to “Kinnear” people to some degree… Yarn Harlot’s post coining that phrase stuck with me. :)

  • Looking at something produces testimony; photographing it produces evidence.

    – RG>

  • What is it about photography that makes us feel so self-conscious?

    It’s a defense mechanism because we potographers do steal souls.
    All the zombies are not accounted for.

  • tobique demo

    Thank you for not going beyond the vale on this. People should be entitled to some privacy even when out in public. Props to you for respecting that that.

  • tobique demo

    Thank you for not going beyond the pale on this. People should be entitled to some privacy even when out in public. Props to you for respecting that that.
    Bad speller moi