I’ve always had a thing about taking photos of people. I feel self-conscious – people always behave oddly when there is a camera around.
I am so used to wandering around on my own, snapping textures, close-ups of things, buildings at odd angles. When I am with a friend in a place of note, I’ve often forget the protocol – you take a picture of your friend in or next to that place of note. You do not blithely snap away with them rubber limbed standing next to you.
People like pictures of themselves. They might not, at the time, say so. Especially if they are English. English people tend to get a little shy around the camera, giggle and shift about, look away, and stiffly grin. But in ten years time, they will surely appreciate that picture. How young, how sexy, how beautiful they were.
When you take a picture of a friend, you are engaged with a dialogue with them through the lens. They know you are taking a photo – that’s often part of the deal – and more often then not they are staring directly at the camera. And saying cheese.
When you take a picture of strangers, there is no dialogue. You actually don’t want them to know that you are taking a photo of them at all. Ideally, you want them to continue just being, to carry on with what they are doing. You are a fly on the wall. They are the place, the picturesque location.
So you want the camera to be as unobtrusive as possible. That is, unless your name is Bruce Gilden – his pictures are violent, dangerous, intimate, shocking, forcefully taken – you take pictures like a psychopath, without pity or empathy or shame. Oh by the way, he is one of my favorite photographers. I love his work, his pictures are powerful.
What do you do when you want to observe people? You have more ethics than Bruce Gilden. Its not polite to stare – people don’t like it.
As a member of the public, you often just take glimpses of the people around you, short fleeting looks. Even if you are on the public boat to Guidecca, and there is a goth lady with painted on eyebrows buttoned up in black with spider-web legs in 85 degree heat, eating an apple with fierce concentration, and you really want to take her in, visually. No! short, fleeting looks. Your eyes may settle on her briefly, almost in spite of your efforts, while your gaze wonders up to check on the next stop. Was it casual enough? Did she notice?
My new technique is to get the camera to stare for me. I set up the shot in a casual way, looking down, at an angle, then look elsewhere and take the picture. It’s a little bit of a splatter-gun approach to photography. You get a lot of rubbish, you need to edit furiously afterwards. Rarely are the pictures in focus or framed right if you are working quickly. But you get interesting results, for the 1 in 24 that comes out ok. Dammit, if I only had a decent resolution and it was in focus.