Photo and Words by Star Rush
“To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them that they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed,” Susan Sontag, from On Photography
Street photography is a kind of improvisation, not unlike jazz. It’s got beats, rhythms, spontaneity — attention to speed and a kind of “pre-visualization” of a final photography, a story, a revelation or insight.
I’ve been asked about some of my candid street portraits and the seemingly intense eye-contact that’s evident in some of them. I’ve been warned about the “soul stealing” that I’m engaging in as one who photographs people I do not know in candid moments without their awareness. These are ethical issues; these are moral concerns of a high order. There appears this apparent connection that surfaces, as though I and the subject are standing face-to-face, eye-to-eye, an intimacy that emerges, a vulnerability that can leave us unsettled.
Seconds go by as I walk by people on the sidewalk. I don’t stand on corners or lean against poles watching people pass. I don’t wait. I am seldom still. I walk, usually at a good pace, with my iPhone in in my right hand down at my side. The candid portraits are taken straight-on: me facing them and they me. We encounter one another, I raise my iPhone slightly, snap, lower it again, and walk on. All this happens in maybe 2 seconds. We then walk in opposite directions on the same sidewalk, neither slowing the pace much. I take one photo—that’s it. If it comes out, then great. If it doesn’t, I delete. I’m not an editor, and I don’t want a stream of photographs, all just slightly different from the next. One is good enough, or it is not. Well before I and the subject meet, I’ve already composed the final photo in mind’s eye, already saw them inside a frame, and so the photograph takes shape about 1 minute before the steps I’ve described above.
But what about that eye-contact? Surely it is suspicion with or concern about the camera that’s being represented in those glances. I don’t think so. I don’t think that at all. I’ve started to look at people I don’t know in the eye when I’m out in public, without my camera. It’s actually harder to do than it seems. About two-thirds of the time, people don’t look back. Eyes get lowered or turn away. The others, they look back. We make eye-contact. There’s no camera—just our selves, locked for a split second. No words, no other gestures but a mutual recognition. It feels intense, this locking, this seeing. It’s emotional for me when it happens. There’s a kind of electricity, a surge of feelings, a rush of a kind of knowing or an insight, and then, just as fast, it’s all gone when we pass at the shoulder, each heading to separate directions.
Maybe it’s not only the presences of this “stealing” camera that posses us, that has us violating each other in ways that are irretrievable. Perhaps it is a kind of meaningful observation that the camera records, a kind of “seeing,” a seeing of one another in our depths, our inner selves for a second. We meet in glance, and in this glance is a pulling away from the mundane. This is who I am. There is vulnerability in revealing, even in a second: “This is who I am. I see you.”
What I like about jazz and the blues is the same thing I like about my experiences of candid photography; they tell stories, they express feelings about daily activities in life. Every line tells a story, expresses feelings or meaning—an authentic poetry that speaks to how people are, who they are, the most personal aspects of one’s humanity expressed in a public context.
It’s kind of like telling secrets, these candid portraits, showing what passes unnoticed most of the time as we hurry by. Certainly, there's more is happening. Images lie and, well, they don’t. In the photographs, I share not just the subject’s but my eye, my sensibilities, my vulnerability, too. When I look at the photographs, I see my secrets surface, too.
Originally written for Mobile Photo Group and shared October 28, 2011