On trying to become invisible

Because they seem to find it so difficult themselves, friends and acquaintances often ask me how I manage to take natural pictures of people, people who are in the act of doing things. By that they mean – I believe – that my subjects are not simply frozen and staring straight into my lens and very aware of my presence – but that on the contrary they seem to be oblivious of it, simply carrying on with whatever activities they were involved in in the first place. I get asked all sorts of questions: “Do you ask for permission before you take a shot?”; “Or do you get to know your subjects before you start taking their picture?”; “How do people feel about having their picture stolen?” etc.

Well the truth is, there’s no rule. In fact, I’m convinced that the best way to fail to get a good shot is to always apply a given set of rules. What you really need is quick thinking, an open mind – and a lot of intuition.

For example if I’m walking down the street and happen on a scene where all the important elements – the subject, the light, the angle – are all perfectly aligned, I’m obviously not going to take the risk of disrupting things by asking permission to shoot. Such moments are so rare – and therefore so valuable to a photographer, that I’m simply not willing to take the risk of screwing things up by interfering with whatever is going on….so, I just shoot. I shoot without asking for permission and keep the consequences for later. What happens next can be quite different in nature, depending on my luck. Reactions range from the man who will yell at me in anger and throw a stone, to some youth who’ll ask for more pictures and will start posing (that’s usually where I stop shooting), to a subject who will ignore me totally – as if I didn’t exist. Reactions involving anger or agression are rare but they do happen sometimes. Honestly, I can’t blame people for feeling angry at times: after all I bluntly intruded into their life and took something away from them. Now that they’re feeling upset it’s up to me to deal with it and make amends: I apologise, offer a cigarette, explain what i’m doing and then usually stop shooting and move away (although you’d be surprised to know how many people become friendly and actually give me permission to continue shooting once I have apologised!).

Then at the extreme opposite of this blunt approach where the picture is – let’s face it – somehow stolen, there’s the slow approach. And when I say slow, I mean really really slow… This is the time when you get to know your subjects – and get to be known by them – before you even show your cameras, let alone take pictures. Once, when I was trying to be accepted by the members of a notoriously difficult tribe which I was planning to photograph, I spent the first six months simply visiting them and getting acquainted. I knew how wary of foreigners these people were and so I wanted their fear of me to disappear before I started the real work. I did carry a camera around during these first six months, but it was loaded with colour film which I only used to take quick snapshots of my hosts. I would then make sure to bring these prints on subsequent visits – something the people loved of course, since many had never owned a picture of themselves before. In this way I became known as the innocuous “picture guy” who went around taking portraits and handing them around. The camera was slowly loosing its threatening power, and by the time I felt I could start my real work most people had become accepting of the fact that I was always pointing my lens at them. This, of course, helped me get what I had been waiting for all along: pictures where people acted and behaved in a natural way.

Between these two extremes lies the middle way, which in fact turns out to be the one I encounter the most frequently: when I spot a scene that has potential I greet everyone, introduce myself, and take a little time to get to know my hosts before I get down to business. But not before I have asked for permission to photograph them, something which, by then, is almost always granted. People are a little stiff when I begin shooting – they stare, feel a little uncomfortable – but then quickly settle down and forget about me. I have once again become what I always strive to be – which is invisible.

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