Photo-Philosophy

The Photos Not Taken – by Frank H. Wu

A partially planned photo taken when the street sweeper turned around at just the right moment and in focus

“Please move along,” the man said. I had wanted to photograph the door he opened, of the brownstone on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, along a quiet residential street on an afternoon that signaled spring. It had one of those giant brass knobs in the center, against a forest green solid wood background, and if it had been round and set into a hillside I would have been sure that Bilbo Baggins the hobbit resided within. Somebody went to trouble with this entryway to communicate class. I actually mumbled something or the other about how the door was interesting, but that had no discernible effect. Unless the guard — what other role might he have had? — coincidentally happened to be about to walk outside, he must have been on duty and aware that a miscreant was pointing a camera at the property he was protecting.

“I’m going to have to ask you to move along,” he repeated. He did not have to add anything about my not wanting to make him come out there, to make his point.

He was burly, Caucasian, early 30s, in a tight fitting suit, with crew cut hair. I believe he was wearing one of those earpieces you see not only in movies but in reality, though my perception of that detail might have been inspired by the weirdness of the encounter. I did as I was told. There are other doors in the world. I was tempted to loop back with my cellphone to take a snapshot. That seemed unwise.

Perhaps the owners of the property were just especially sensitive about their privacy. If only I had been shooting a digital camera set to full automatic mode, I would have been able to squeeze off a shot. But on my Contax G2 I had to fiddle with the exposure compensation dial because of the shadows in the scene. I fumbled the opportunity.

Even though I had loaded black and white film, I have learned what countless others have before me. Many, if not most, vivid colorful scenes turn out to have as much character, even more, rendered in fine greyscale.

The week before, I had exited the Washington Metro subway, seen a man playing a ukulele, dropped a dollar into his bucket, and tried to take a photo. The busker, dark complexioned, bundled up against the cold, waved me off. He had one of those faces that I like to see, with sharp angles and signs of wear, bearing pockmarks suited for portraiture.

In that instance, I was resentful. I reasoned that I had tipped him, which meant we had a bargain in my mind at least, and he was in a public space anyway. Then I immediately felt guilty about my general privilege and inappropriate presumption, remembering the episode of the Seinfeld television show in which the always boorish but never boring George Costanza attempted to retrieve the dollar he had dropped into the gratuities jar when the barista turned away, so he could be seen by the worker bestowing his largesse.

The musician shook his head vehemently despite showing a smile. Actually, people who study smiles inform us that to reveal your teeth in that manner suggests everything from aggression to fright to madness, but not, in general, happiness.

Since then more than once, I have heard the distinctive melody of this performer. As I have ridden the long escalator from the Brutalist stations underground, anonymous among commuters and tourists in the nation’s Capitol, I have contemplated sneaking a picture as I scurry by in the crowd. My wife has scolded me for stalking the poor fellow. She has added without stereotyping but with sympathy that he might have some reason to not wish to have his image captured. He certainly deserves greater consideration than a door. I have left him alone.

It is for these photographic possibilities, however, as I pass people going about their business, that I carry a camera at all times. There is so much to be documented that is intrinsically ephemeral.

Yet these moments of protest against photography have been compelling in their own right. By definition, when I was unable to take the photo, I have nothing to show for it. I can, however, save the moment in a memory that is not private, fragile, and hence hardly deserving the title. I can write about what I witnessed. That is a worthwhile genre of photography: the absence, the omission, the mistake, or, if one wishes to be literary, the lacuna. This alternative means of recording, then sharing, an experience constitutes an experiment. Although words cannot reproduce what a photograph can, they can render something else; they generate a new original for the reader, complete with a personalized graphic.

There are so many people, even our families who suffer our equipment in their faces, who are reluctant to have their photos taken. Everyone who fancies himself a “street photographer,” a term that has descended, like “foodie” into caricature if not buffoonery, exploits others to an extent. Even if we are not gawking at the suffering around us, recording it rather than reducing it, perhaps we are perpetrating a bit of wrong.

I remind myself to be sensitive. Photography must have ethics to it, beyond etiquette. The risk of this technology is not that, as myth would have it, we will steal the souls of our subjects, but that we will surrender the souls of our selves.

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8 Comments

  • Reply
    Ricardo Zamarripa
    July 12, 2018 at 3:57 pm

    Frank,
    This was a pleasure to read. I enjoyed your argument for ethics always being present in our photographic endeavors. I have been waved off and am sensitive to people not having heir picture taken and I respect their wishes and feel guilt for invading their privacy. I don’t regret missing the shot and eventually I’m happy with myself for not overstepping their boundaries. The current street confrontational and “raw” street photography movement will only make people more hesitant when they see someone with a camera. just my opinion. Enjoy your G2 and try an old Barnack, proper exposure is overrated.

  • Reply
    Daniel Castelli
    July 12, 2018 at 6:56 pm

    In the United States, if you are on a public sidewalk, you have the right to photograph on the street. There is no expectation of privacy. Photographing a building from public space is not a crime. The eventual use of the photograph (i.e., commercial endeavors) does entail another set of rules.
    Unless you are attempting blatant voyeuristic or ‘up skirt’ style of shooting, you can snap away. It is a first amendment right, not a privilege.
    ‘Barney Fife’ style security guards hold no police powers. They can’t take away your film or media card. The operate on intimidation and a person’s lack of knowledge of rights & law. Just stay on public property. If you enter private property, the situation becomes more murky.

    Buskers are operating under the same rights you have. Playing for money in a public space? Snap away.

    If you are hesitant to shoot on the street because of shyness or fear, then find benign subjects to photograph. Street photography is edgy, involves a bit of aggressive attitude (Bruce Glidden is the extreme) and quick reflexes. Not everyone can do it. But, on the other hand, I’m just plain terrible doing landscape photography. I like to look at well made photos, but I just don’t see in the same way as these photographers; I don’t have the patience.

    I’ve shot on the street for 45 years and only twice have I been confronted. We must not allow the current racist, homophobic & nationalistic fever in the US prevent us from exercising our rights. To stop working is to give in to the fear.

    • Reply
      Mike Gayler
      July 15, 2018 at 1:42 pm

      In the UK it’s very similar, you can photograph while you are in the public space, but the boundaries are increasingly being blurred by big corporations owning pseudo-public spaces around commercial developments.
      The situation here is summed up in two articles that cover slightly different ground : https://www.amateurphotographer.co.uk/technique/expert_advice/street-photography-and-the-law-96304 and the Wikipedia article at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Photography_and_the_law
      Leaving aside the legal side – I don’t consider myself a ‘street photographer’ but have always asked buskers / street artists for permission to photograph at the same time as I drop a healthy tip in their hat – and I’ve never been refused.
      It’s good that the ethical side of photography is getting an airing.

  • Reply
    Wayne
    July 13, 2018 at 11:59 am

    Excellent piece of writing, and on a thing I have contemplated for as long as walking around with a camera has become a habit. My results would have mirrored you own….Including admonishment from my wife and/or daughters. Such emotional uncertainty does require a response, a reminder, as it tells important things. If possible, I look for a surrogate for the “not taken” and shoot that. Those photos never fail to stop me in my tracks; clear my mind of whatever may have be on it.

  • Reply
    Michael
    July 14, 2018 at 12:41 am

    We have a saying around these parts: you snooze (or you waste time with setting up a shot in this case to get it perfect), you lose.

    Unless you’re photographing government buildings or state/federal property, no one has the right to tell you to move on or do anything to you. They do try tho. Know your rights and state those rights back to wannabe cops aka security guards. Some don’t even know that they’re in the wrong legally. They mostly do what they do because of the orders by the employer or their own inflated ego because their job is boring as hell but think they’re somebody.

  • Reply
    Aivaras
    July 14, 2018 at 12:08 pm

    Strong story! Agree to all points mentioned.

  • Reply
    William
    July 14, 2018 at 7:30 pm

    Interesting to read some of the comments about knowing your rights. I experienced a situation, in a public location, of photographing a suspect in a series of robberies and after a car chase, being taken into custody. I snapped a couple of shots and was immediately told to stop, which I did. I should have left the scene at that time. A few minutes later two plain clothes officers walked up to me and asked me for my identification. One stated that this was his town(Humble,Texas) and nobody took pictures without his permission. They took my DL and walked away for a short time. When they returned he(the man whose town it was) said for me to give him my film. He said that if I had a problem with that I could come down to the station. Since I was there on photo assignment I didn’t want to mess that up. I gave him my film and went on my way. When I returned home to Dallas I went to see an attorney. He said to me that I had done the right thing because someone like that was probably not above administering personal bodily harm, if I had gone down to the station. I have learned that the real world is not always as cut and dried as a textbook. Oh, and just so you know, the year was nineteen eighty-five. As a final note, I also spoke with a longtime news photographer and he said that you should always carry an extra roll of film in your pocket for just such an occasion. When they leave you alone,rewind your film then load the spare into your camera. When they return and demand your film you pop the back,grab the film, pull it all out of the canister and then hand it to them.

    Thanks for the story. Gives you reason to stop and think before you press the shutter.

  • Reply
    Daniel Castelli
    July 15, 2018 at 3:31 am

    “Whatca takin’ pictures of, boy…?” 1971. Road trip south of the Mason Dixon Line. Big, mean-tempered cop in Georgia. I was taking a pic of a rural scene with people working in fields. I was long haired, CT license plates and pulled over on the shoulder of the road. Got a citation for some minor violation. Pure harassment. Best to keep your mouth closed. Never argue w/cops. Better yet, don’t get into a situation where cops are called in. As bad as we were treated, the minorities were/are treated much worse.
    I have used the blank roll of film switch-r-roo in Paris, of all places.
    Great responses from commentators.

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