Who’s taking these photos?



I (re)started this blog at a low point on a particularly grey Thursday morning with the aim of becoming more vulnerable. As a good friend pointed out, though, I’ve stayed pretty safe in putting up photos with a little bit of writing about them. I can take quite nice photos, and choose the ones that go up, and how they appear, so this hasn’t been much of a risk, and has been pretty self-contained. Nobody else is involved.

Peter Hills made a similar point about some photos I took a few years ago during 3 days I spent by myself in Campeche. There’s 144 photos in the album and, in total, maybe half a dozen people. You’d be forgiven for thinking that the place is a colourful colonial ghost town. It’s not. It’s a very busy town with markets and families and tourists and music and all manner of life. I waited patiently on street corners for life to get out of the way of the colours and shapes I was interested in.

Brussels, 1932, Henri Cartier-Bresson

I always laughed off comments about how few people there were in my photos, but it’s started to trouble me.

Last easter I was in Paris for an Henri Cartier-Bresson retrospective. It was amazing, if a little crowded (more people getting in the way of photos). Again and again the photos which drew me in, which touched me, were photos with people in them. Not just as an abstract shape or part of a composition, but as people. Looking at his photos you get (or, I got) a sense of the person taking them – of his humanity. There’s beauty and skill in the composition and the timing, but there’s also a vision of the world which is being shared, and it is thrilling to meet, through these photographs, someone whose vision enriches your own. Art reaches parts that other forms of communication can’t reach, both for the artist and the audience. Like your man Schopenhauer said, genuine contact, meeting, love, can occur through artistic communication.

309047_674761226301_3496917_nRecently I’ve been writing an essay about the character that authors betray in – or rather beyond – their writing. It is this character, rather than the subtlety of their prose, or the accuracy of their arguments, that ultimately decides whether we rate the novel or alter our beliefs, I think.

And this, rather uncomfortably, has led me to ask: who is taking these photos? What character of man emerges beyond these photos?

A year ago a friend and colleague of mine asked me to share some of my photos with some 10/11 year-olds who were doing a local street photography project. They asked me lots of questions about what my photos meant: what was I trying to say with them. I wasn’t able to answer their questions, uncomfortably explaining that there was no symbolism or story to tell, just planes intersecting and shades of colours that pleased my eye. The wires were just wires whose angles happened to feel right to me, not an allegory for the dehumanising effect of modern bureaucracy. I felt their disappointment, but afterwards was self-congratulatory for taking such a post-modern and individual approach.

But this, I think, is naive. Even if you’re only putting them on the Face Books, you’re still creating a character, whether you like it or not.

This. Not a picture of me hugging my child, lover or cat like Barclays suggested.

What character emerges, then? Well, what type of character would strip a town of its people in favour of pure forms? What type of character takes photos of a line of birds on a roof instead of a line of people waiting for a bus? There’s nothing wrong with a photo of some birds. I like that photo a lot. I even put it on my debit card. And to take photos without people doesn’t mean you want there to be no people.

But photography is my main means of creative expression, and is a way of creating the person I am. It’s a way of giving voice to the way I experience the world, and of making that experience real. There’s something very sad then, I feel, about that person being someone who feels much safer with planes than people. The character that I imagine someone might meet behind these photos is someone not at all happy to take risks with the messiness of normal life, who would rather miss out on opportunities to enrich his own and others’ lives for fear of making a mistake. I have the image of a Victorian collector sticking pins through beetles and butterflies to hold them down tight in their mahogany cases. Alone.


Now, I don’t want this blog to turn into an opportunity to chastise myself. It’s difficult, when you’re not used to being vulnerable, to notice the point at which being open tips over into being unduly self-critical. I do take photos of people, but then only people I know and only with the proviso that they’re not the proper ones that go in albums – they’re kept separate from the real artistic photos.

The truth is I get incredibly nervous taking photos of people I don’t know, even from a distance. I’ve never once been challenged (except by a security guard in Ljubljana, the chimney of whose building I was taking a photo) by someone whose photo I’ve taken, but stand in complete admiration of people, like Cartier-Bresson, who openly take photos of anything that interests them, including people. I’m too scared to do that.

Naples, 1960, Henri Cartier-Bresson

What if they told me not to, or worse struck up a conversation and asked me about myself and what I was up to?

What shines through, for me, in Cartier-Bresson’s photos, is the confidence he has that he is not betraying those he takes photos of. He’s not exploiting them. There’s a kindness and gentleness, and a confidence in the honesty of his intentions, which I don’t yet posses. It would be nice to discover that confidence, and take a few less photos of barriers, fences, walls.



2 thoughts on “Who’s taking these photos?

  1. How can you not exploit or betray those you place into a frame? Cartier-Bresson did it just like any other photographer. The difference is that he did not bear all that moralistic ballast.
    And abstraction does not exempt from telling a story, for it is itself a narrative of a westerner who believes he can disentangle himself from technical practices, expectations, readings and landscapes, conversations and affections and the body and all the eyes that make up what he calls “his” eye or his individuality, whatever that is. There are no such things as “planes intersecting and shades of colours” just as there are no pentagons and circles or “meanings”. Yet they make up our mathematical, artistic or intellectual truths, with the same ontological consistency. No shame in that but the need to deny their narrative is yet another story.


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