Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Veritography, pt. 2: The Ethics of Photo-ing

I’m really enjoying getting back into photography, but I do have a big concern. That concern is that lots of people don’t particularly care to have their photograph taken. It seems to be for two reasons:

1) We’re really insecure about how we look.
2) We don’t know what people do with the photos once they’ve been taken.

That’s the cycle of perception and appearance we have in today’s society. I know because I used to hate having my picture taken, though it was largely a “received opinion” that wasn’t really my own. That didn’t stop me from criticizing myself based on it! Luckily, I’ve long since grown out of that phase. And while I can still be self-critical about my appearance, it’s a much more relaxed and healthy sort of attitude. I can acknowledge when exercise and diet have helped me to get into a more healthy shape, and I can also acknowledge that I do like making pizza with lots of cheese and pasta that has prosciutto mixed in for extra flavor. Mmmm.

Also donuts.

Where was I? Oh right, photography!

I’m part of a generation that has grown up in the era of being self-conscious in photos. If I point a camera at someone now, even a friend, they’re probably going to reflexively say something like, “Oh, no! Don’t take a picture of me! I look awful.” And if they don’t do that, they are going to pull the most twisted and silly face they possibly can, holding it until the camera makes a satisfying click or flash and they can relax. (A fun game is to forbear taking the picture to see how long they can hold it.)

That’s one of the reasons why, when I began taking portraits of people, it was at a public setting. All photography, especially when the subjects are people that I don’t know, is creepy on some level. At the Easter service I played earlier this year, when the trio of nice looking young ladies stood to sing a piece, an older parishioner with a camera seemed to come out of nowhere to stand in front of them and take a picture. Actually, to take several pictures. Does he take pictures for the newsletter? Or is he just some guy?

And a few months ago at a high school concert where my quintet was the featured ensemble, there was a nerdy, blond, beglassesed student with a fancy video camera that was taking pictures of the students coming down the hall. I’m sure it is just a coincidence that he moved into place just as the attractive lady with the cleavage showing (umm, high school?) came down the way.

Come to that, *I’m* just a nerdy guy with a camera, so I have an uphill battle against “creepiness” to start. But in a situation with a roomful of eyes trained on someone, one more camera isn’t going to cause any additional discomfort. Especially if I don’t draw attention to myself by standing in front of everyone.

Also, I’ve discovered that the old photography saw is very true: every face is an interesting face for a camera. From the violently beautiful to the arrestingly plain, every face has something in it that I’d like to catch. Maybe it’s an outgrowth of listening to all kinds of people.

It’s a goal for me at any moment to try and take the best picture possible of the subject, regardless of how likely the person is to star in a skin care advertisement or shill for fancy purses. It works out to be quite a puzzle in some cases. That’s also why I tend to shy away from “pose for the camera” shots. I don’t feel comfortable with those sorts of poses.

But therein lies the problem: if I don’t like taking posed shots (which is usually -- usually -- at the consent of the subject) and I don’t like being a photographic asshole who nabs a photo without consent, where does that leave me? Just hovering at the sidelines, waiting for the events where I can capture photos in a space of tacet approval?

Maybe. And I can live with that.

I think there’s a consideration of ethics that needs to be made. We’re moving into an era when it is trivially easy to either 1) have our privacy compromised or 2) compromise our own privacy, unwittingly or no.

Imagine that I really don’t like my boss. I take to the internet on one of my “friend-restricted” social networks to vent, feeling safe in the fact that nobody can share this in any way that might make it up to my boss. But, oops, I click public instead. Or a friend of mine takes a screenshot and sends it straight to the boss. Even though I never intended share it, it has now been shared. In one case, I was to blame even though it was an accident, and in the other, I failed to account for the reality of digital information.

A few years ago, I took the camera and shot hundreds of pictures from a concert I was doing. When I got back, I uploaded them all to a Facebook album, eager to share some of the sites and moments I captured. One thing that Facebook allows you to do is “tag” a friend, indicating to the system which face is one of your friends. They then get a notification that you’ve tagged them, and it allows friends of theirs (who aren’t necessarily friends of mine) to be able to see just those photographs, and only those photographs.

I was busily moving through all the shots, tagging every face I could. Then I got a message from a friend, who’d probably already been tagged in a dozen shots. “Stop tagging me! I don’t like the way I look in any of the pictures of me, in general. Not just yours.”

It took me completely off-guard. I didn’t feel any particular pride in the quality of my shots, but I was completely unaware that anyone might NOT want to have all their friends see everything they were doing. It never occurred to me. I don’t often consider my appearance, and even if my appearance is sub-ideal, it tends to be more fodder for me saying, “Man, my hair looks terrible!” than anything else. But I also don’t get subjected to people evaluating my appearance as a standard of my worth -- the sort of thing that happens to women I know more often than I feel comfortable admitting.

As is often the case, my gender and the trappings thereof have inured me against a lot of what society has to say. Does it still make me feel bad if people judge a picture of me harshly? Of course. But it also happens so rarely that years or decades will pass in between, and it becomes easier to identify the one person who says something and dismiss them.

Something similar happened when I was shooting a friend’s recital
. She’d invited me to take photographs if I wanted to, and I took the opportunity. While I was shooting the setup backstage, I caught (in pictures) other people who immediately exuded body language (or verbal language!) that they would probably have preferred NOT have been included.

So the final album contains only the performer, and the hands and out-of-focus forms of three other setup assistants. Is the final album representative of the "reality" of the setup? No, but I’m not a hired archivist. I’m just there to shoot what I want to shoot. And the things I want to shoot are the people who are accepting of the deal. Or at least those not seemingly opposed to it!

And I’m accepting of people not wanting to be photographed. Not everyone has my loose standards of “wow, my hair looks awful, isn’t that funny?” That’s something I understand. I have friends who have issues with how they look that go far beyond the crazy composer hair I regularly sport. They have lingering issues with eating disorders or, in one case, straight up say, “Well, I have body dysmorphia, so I never really like how I look. At all.”

Another is a person I respect and admire. They have a fantastic face, and any good photo of them would be immensely meaningful to me, if not anyone else. But each time I'm taking photos in their vicinity, they radiate discomfort. On one occasion, even going so far as to cover their face when they thought I was taking their picture (it turned out to be the person on the bench behind them). That is the very essence of withholding consent -- they can't literally take the camera from me, but they REALLY don't want to be captured. And now that I know that, I don't try. It doesn't stop me from framing the good shots in my head, though! 

I’m not interested in making people confront images of themselves that they don’t want. I’d love to try to get meaningful pictures of anyone, but I’m not going to force it. And if someone asks me to destroy a picture, I’ll beg and plead to first just refrain from publishing it, if I think it’s worth fighting for. And if that isn’t sufficient, then I’ll erase it.

I’m really only interested in making people look good. In this context, "looking good" means looking powerful, emotional, silly, worried, relieved, and any of those sorts of emotions that people experience. But the way I see it, the person who I'm taking a picture of is in charge of what the picture looks like. They don't make any of the choices about background or camera settings, but I feel that they make the choice of how the photo looks. If the subject isn't looking good, then it's not a photo I want. I want other people to look at one of my photographs and identify with the person, or have their own emotional moment, based on what they see.

A conscious choice I make is to pick pictures that look good. I don’t use photos with awkward or unattractive facial expressions. My camera can capture enough frames that eight out of ten for a particular moment will be the in-between stages of talking, which the mouth and lips taking foreign shapes that we aren’t used to seeing. Those make for terrible photographs, because they distract the audience, giving them an excuse to comprehend the artificiality of the photo. A human being would never walk in public clothed in that expression, so it does them a disservice to freeze them with lips projecting and eyes rolled and bulging.

So it boils down to trusting me as a photographer. Trust is how I overcome those two points from up top:

1) Concerned about how we look
2) Concerned about how the photos are used

I think everything through and try to only chose photos that make people look amazing. Or interesting. Or strong. Or vulnerable. Or beautiful. Those are the pictures I want. 

And that leads immediately to me wanting to share them. First privately with the subject, if it's warranted. Then with everyone, if it's allowed. 

I spend minutes or hours developing them, into the dark hours of night when I should be sleeping. I feel like if I just work a little harder, then the photo will become exemplary. And I often come out with something I really really like. 

What's even better, is that I come out with something that the subject really really likes. And their family and friends really really like. My record so far is eight people simultaneously using my pictures as their on-line representations in the world. Photos that the subjects have liked enough to pin their digital identity to it and show everyone they know: "this represents me in a way I like."

No higher compliment.

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