by Hans Durrer
of my problems with photography, especially documentary photography,
is that it is intrusive. To alleviate this problem, regardless
whether it concerns press photos or portraits, photography
needs the collaboration between photographer and subject.
"War Photographer", a documentary by Christian
Frei about the work of the photographer James Nachtwey, was nominated
for an Oscar (in 2002) and won twelve international film festivals.
mini video recorders placed on Nachtwey's camera allowed the
viewers to see what the photographer was seeing. In Kosovo:
a crying woman. People try to comfort her. She has just learned,
one suspects, that someone close to her — maybe her son, maybe her husband? — was
killed, or found in a mass grave? We are not told, we do not
know, we are left guessing. Neither do we know what the photographer
knows. We see what the photographer sees: a woman crying, her
face full of pain, women who try to calm and comfort her. Nachtwey
is getting closer and closer, he aims the camera at her face
and ceaselessly presses the button. How is he able to do that?
Doesn't he feel awkward, and embarrassed? Doesn't he have scruples?
My First Success; photograph
by Julia Margaret Cameron, 1864
of this film,
this quote by Nachtwey can be found: "Every
minute I was there, I wanted to flee. I did not want to see this.
Would I cut and run, or would I deal with the responsibility of
being there with a camera?" In the film we can hear him more
than once stressing the importance of having respect. He also says
he understands himself as being the spokesperson for the ones he
I'm glad that Nachtwey's photos exist and remind us of things
we would probably rather not be reminded of. I want to believe
his good intentions. Yet, I also feel that there is something wrong
with this kind of photography because the ones portrayed are used;
they have no say in how they are depicted and later are put in
pages of books, or hung on walls.
look at Nachtwey's rationalizations.
not sure what this is, "the responsibility of being there
with a camera." Does that mean that because he is a professional
photographer who goes to take pictures in war zones, he has an
obligation to take these photos? According to whom? And if so,
toward whom does he have this obligation?
Yes, respect is needed, it is imperative, but how does it translate
into action? To hold a camera into the face of a grieving person
is indefensible; it is the opposite of showing respect; it is the
total absence of tact, courtesy and decency. Is he really their
spokesperson? How can he be? How does he know that they need or
want a spokesperson?
is an intrusive medium. Quite a few photographers describe their
business in somewhat aggressive terms as shooting pictures. One
way of softening this intrusiveness — if one
so wishes — is the collaboration between photographer and
the ones portrayed. Such collaboration is not uncommon, just think
of photo ops or portraits.
In the London
Guardian of 18 January 2003, Liz Jobey quotes the
next note by the Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron
on what she saw as her first successful photograph:
"At 1pm on January 29 1864, a little girl with cherubic features
and scraggy, shoulder-length hair was buttoned into her winter
coat, waiting patiently for her photograph to be taken. In front
of her, a short, stocky, middle-aged woman fitted another glass
plate into the back of her huge camera and begged the child to
keep still. She was probably counting, too; it could take up to
five minutes for the image to be fully exposed. If the girl was
bored, she didn't show it. Her face, turned in half-profile to
catch the light, was composed but alive, its curves heightened
by the contrast between shadow and light. It was a happy result — we
know, because the photographer wrote to the girl's father later
that day: 'My first perfect success in the complete Photograph
owing greatly to the docility & sweetness of my best and fairest
little sitter. This Photograph was taken by me at 1pm Friday Jan
29th Printed Toned — fixed and framed all by me & given
as it now is by 8pm this same day Jan 29th 1864. Julia Margaret
years later, in her memoir, Annals of My Glass House, Cameron
expanded on this moment, "I was in a transport of delight.
I ran all over the house to search for gifts for the child. I felt
as if she entirely had made the picture."
recently, Murat Nemet-Nejat (2003), in The Peripheral Space
of Photography, also stresses the importance of the subject's behavior: "The
pose is a photographic dimension which goes beyond the intention
of the photographer and suggests the independence, asserts even
the very existence, of the subject. The pose is the key to catch
the independent, socially ignored, unsaid unacknowledged in the
but there are photographers who do acknowledge the importance
of the pose. Lisa Kahane (2008), in Do Not Give Way to Evil,
the official cynicism about street photography, the people I met
in the neighborhood were happy to have their picture taken. They
stopped their cars in the middle of the street (very Bronx) and
got out to pose for me. They were proud and generous. No one I
met had more than a passing thought about taking my camera from
In times when (some) photographers hold celebrity status, it is
useful to be reminded that a good photograph does not solely depend
on the photographer's ability to choose the right subject, location
and light, but also on the chemistry and the collaboration, between
photographer and subject.
good illustration of this is One Step Beyond, the multimedia
project about landmines and their victims by the German photographer
Lukas Einsele. Because Einsele makes his pictures with a large-format
camera, staging is unavoidable because, as he wrote to me in
an e-mail: "The camera is visible, the photo — its exposition — lasts
such a long time that a certain acquiescence has to exist between
photographer and subject. Sure, there are exceptions, but actually
I'm looking for these common productions by which the subjects
become co-authors of an image-reality."
When looking at works of photography, viewers often don't know
whether such types of collaboration as those mentioned above have
taken place. Sometimes viewers learn about it, more often they
don't. Photographs invite us to ask questions: What do my eyes
show me? How did the photo come to be? What doesn't it show? And
Evans, while working for the Resettlement Administration in the
1930s, took photos of sharecroppers in Alabama. He portrayed
them in their daily lives, at times with worn-out clothes, dirty
feet, uncombed hair and unshaven faces, because he wanted to
document the circumstances they were living in. That, however,
seems not have been to their liking, for there exists one photo — one
that Evans did not use in his publications — that shows the
family clean and combed and in their Sunday best. One can safely
assume that it was taken at the request of the family.
my deep sympathy for socially inclined photographers, when the
people portrayed feel ashamed of their portraits, there clearly
is something wrong with this kind of photography.
• Cameron, Julia Margaret (1874), Annals
of my glass house.
Compiled and annotated by Violet Hamilton. Retrieved on March 18,
2008, from: Victorian
photographs: Julia Margaret Cameron.
• Einsele, Lukas (2000-2005), One
step beyond. The mine revisited.
Retrieved on March 18, 2008, from: One
• Jobey, Liz (2003), First
light In: The
Guardian, January 18, 2003.
• Kahane, Lisa (2008), Do not give way to evil. Photographs
of the South Bronx, 1979-1987. Brooklyn, New York: PowerHouse Books.
• Nemet-Nejat, Murat (2003), The peripheral space of photography.
Los Angeles, California: Green Integer Press.
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