Sunday, June 28, 2009

An Ethics of Seeing

In making a photo, I make two somewhat conscious decisions - an aesthetic choice and a choice in how to represent the subject featured in the photograph.

The first is easily explained thus: though I purport to shoot in the documentary tradition with the documentary ( [subjective] truth, [cultural] discovery, [perhaps] useful documentation) aims in mind, I was raised on images that flaunted aesthetic as much as content. The visual – colors, composition, focus, etc. – remains important and my innate sense of what works cannot be turned off. Nor would I want to turn it off.

The second decision uses the same tools – framing, cropping, focus, etc – but the goal isn’t the best looking picture, but rather the most accurate in representing the scene and what I want to say about it. For example, when documenting a concert, it may be more appropriate to shoot the musician or, perhaps, the crowd. Depending on the scene, it might make more sense to shoot close-ups, or in black and white, or cut off faces, or aim at the feet, etc. Whether conscious or unconscious, decisions are made when taking a photo that reflect the photographer’s subjective interpretation of the view. It is an imposition of how the camera handler sees the world and an edited product that is served up to viewers dictating, inevitably, how they can see the world in the glimpse presented in the photo.

So while I am aware of these forces vaguely circling in my method as I shoot, they have become integrated into a smooth work-flow that, though conscious, is mostly unforced. The fact that I tend to shoot organic situations (not set-up, without instruction to the subjects, etc.) reduces my control over representation factors slightly as well.

These things, always humming in my head as I work, were turned up to a screech when I met X. Without going into details, after brief interactions with X. I developed a healthy aversion to him and was then in a situation where I took photos of him. The question then is this: What is the right way to take a picture of someone you do not respect?

Though no representation is truly objective, a strong disrespect for the subject is blatantly subjective. Is it ok to oblige the viewer to subscribe to this? Susan Sontag writes that “there is an aggression implicit in every use of the camera.” How much stronger is that aggression when the picture is taken with a disgust as part of the driving force? Further, Sontag writes, “To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them they can never have…” How respectful is the act of this violation (and by inference, me) when the aim is to show ugliness when perhaps, the subject in the photos does not see it thus? Is it more ok to show the ugliness if the subject agrees that he is ugly?

As the one with the camera, I hold the power to shoot, to represent, to show, to manipulate. This is the case with every photo I take. Why then did I feel so uncomfortable in this case? It’s not the mere fact that what I thought of the subject was negative – I’ve shot with negative impressions before without such issues. Is it because he showed vulnerability in addition to the ugliness and I only saw ugliness? Perhaps, though in the end, the picture shows both. Is it because I let the aesthetic carry too much weight? The photo is eye catching and well lit with an overall, attractive (to me) softness. Perhaps. Is it because it’s too blunt? The image conveniently includes the graffitied word ‘vile’ above the subject’s head. I don’t know.

It is tempting to me to take on an anthropological reflexivity when showing photos. I think in this way the judgment is less vague and leaves more room for the viewer to interpret the image, perhaps letting them understand my subjectivity and letting them agree, disagree, or at least put it into context. In a photo book or a photo show one can do this with a statement or a bio. What does one provide as reflexive documentation for a disparate image? It seems burdensome to ask a viewer to invest the kind of time and care that would require in viewing one image.

In the end, the bigger issue isn’t about the photo – it’s about an approach to human interaction and judgment. But the dilemma is this: while I think my judgment is valid, it is private (and about a private figure, not a politician, celebrity, etc.). The photo becomes public as soon as it leaves my camera and is seen by others. So, is it fair to make a public statement about a private judgment and is it avoidable? Also, it would be interesting to figure out if any of my qualms or aversions to X. even come through in the photo to first-time viewers...