05 February 2011

Camera in Your Face

The previous entry brings me to a subject that I have come to know a bit about. It is a subject, though, that I have not completely thought through yet for myself, although others have had things to say about it. It is this business of taking pictures of people. To put it bluntly, shoving a camera in another person's face. There are many people in this world who would feel more violated only if you shoved a gun in their face.

The intrusiveness of a camera is a serious thing worth some serious thought. I have given it a good deal of thought myself because the business of shoving a camera in a person's face cross-culturally has required that I think about it.

Let us set aside the whole subject of paparazzi. Photographing rich, powerful, famous people without their consent has nothing to do with what I am talking about. Let us also set aside the whole business of photojournalism, also. I regard photojournalism as a necessary evil, a necessary evil like the police. It serves a broad social purpose. 

I would love to photograph more people here, close up, candidly. After all, what is more interesting in the end than looking at other people? But that brings with it complicated problems.

There are norteamericanos who come in here and put their cameras in the faces of the people without any conscience whatsoever. One can tell when a week-long photography workshop is going on somewhere in town. They are everywhere then. There was one going on at the time of the last Day of the Dead. When I was in the cemetery taking pictures myself, I saw a guy walk up to a family visiting the grave of a loved one and take pictures of them without a word in advance. Of course there are going to be people in photographs of the cemetery at that time. However, this man was taking pictures close up and personal, apparently attempting to get his own Annie Leibovitz-type portraits.

In fairness there are wealthy Mexicans from Mexico City who come here and do the same thing. The somewhat disparaging word for them is “chilangos.” They stand out like sore thumbs.

Now, you can get away with that here. It is a tourist town. People are used to the intrusion of the tourist and his camera. Many of them make their living from tourism. They want tourists here. That does not mean, however, that people are never offended by the way tourists sometimes use their cameras. It is not a pleasant thing to feel one's self to be an interesting human being only as the subject for a photograph like some exotic creature in a zoo.

You just cannot do that out in the hinterlands, however. Not if you value your camera. Not if your camera is too large to fit up your ass easily.

I have a friend, Kristina from Canada, who is also an avid photographer. We have discussed this a good deal. Some time ago she went on a photographic safari to Cuba. That group's guide, or minder, or whatever, lectured them at length before going out about shoving cameras in peoples' faces without first interacting with them in some meaningful way. Kristina is very good at that now. And she is quite an attractive lady, which gives her an advantage. With men anyway.

There is the key to all this. If one engages with a person first. If one talks with them a bit—admire their products or discuss the weather or something—then one can ask to photograph them. That is not to say that they will always consent. Recently, I so wanted to photograph an old woman cooking tortillas next to the street on a homemade, propane-fired contraption that was fascinating. La Mexicana was with me. We spoke with her first. Still, she declined. Firmly. And that was that. No photos.

But let me tell you something. If you do that successfully and then photograph the person with their consent, your photographs more likely than not are going to be worthless. It is the rare subject who is a natural poser. Therefore, one loses the candidness in photographing the person. The photograph will no longer say anything about them.

Then there is this aspect of it. I have for a long time wanted to do a series of photographs of my beggar women. Photograph the invisible, if you will. They all know me by sight now. I have encountered them regularly for a couple of years, have spoken to them, have dropped coins in their cups since the beginning. I think that I could engage them and get consent to photograph many of them. Some of them are more in the next world than in this one and would not grasp the situation. Bad shape. 

But I ask myself why I want to do that? I could say, for example, that I want to show images of this misery to middle-class norteamericanos so that they can appreciate how lucky they are, realize that the pissant problems with which they deal in their lives are as nothing compared to this. But that would be disingenuous. The truth is that I don't give a shit about middle class norteamericanos and their pissant problems.

What I really want are fascinating images of people who have been completely defeated by life. That is not enough to justify the project in my mind. There is something psychologically all wrong about it. Nor would I wish to be seen doing it. They do after all station themselves on the busiest streets. I would have no problem with a photojournalist doing it, however.

In any event it is a complicated subject that I have not completely come to grips with. In the meantime and as far as photographs of people are concerned, the best I can do are things of this nature, “Ice Cream in the Plaza.”

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