↖️ Photography

Photographic practice (musings)

Late updated: 2023-09-17

Photographing people

Disclaimer! This section in particular is "a bit out there". Nothing here is insincere, but most of it is up for questioning. I have not written this to be flexible, but it ultimately is, like almost everything in life, which bends, turns back on itself, flips to the side, and eventually dissolves into nothing.

Maybe it's trite to quote Sontag right away, but no one ever hit on my feelings about photography so directly as her. The first time I read about On Photography (in a book critical of it, that described it as absurd, incomprehensible), I was blown away. It is one of the most exciting things I have ever read, and immediately, urgently, and deeply struck me. Anyway, here's the full, in-context quote that I ever read of Sontag about photography:

Like guns and cars, cameras are fantasy-machines whose use is addictive. However, despite the extravagances of ordinary language and advertising, they are not lethal. In the hyperbole that markets cars like guns, there is at least this much truth: except in wartime, cars kill more people than guns do. The camera/gun does not kill, so the ominous metaphor seems to be all bluff—like a man’s fantasy of having a gun, knife, or tool between his legs. Still, there is something predatory in the act of taking a picture. To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed. Just as the camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is a sublimated murder—a soft murder, appropriate to a sad, frightened time.

Susan Sontag, On Photography

That's on something like page 10 of most copies, so you don't have to read far into On Photography before you get to explosive statements like this. The specific aspect of this that resonated deeply with me (aside from being wonderfully polemic) is "[t]o photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves". I've forever had this sense that being in a photograph felt like I was being robbed. Robbed of my own perspective of myself, robbed of agency (in some way or another), robbed of my privacy, even robbed of my self. A photograph of a person cannot speak for them, and the person in the photograph almost never (it is really very rare) gets to speak for themselves. This is all the more true for artistic photography, where the agency of a particular human subject is almost always ripped away from them. Even if an "artist's statement" quotes them, the infinite reproducibility of photography, especially now, eliminates any chance that someone gets to speak for themselves, when they appear in a photograph (at least ones distributed publicly).

That feel extends beyond my sense of being photographed and on to my sense of photographing others, and in particular strangers. I'm not talking about people as part of a scene, or when someone is unidentifiable (their face is obscured, etc). I mean when a person is the subject, when they are undeniably the photograph. Something about it makes me nauseous, like Sartre levels of nausea, nausea that demands something radical (perhaps even just avoiding it entirely).

Beyond a base sense of strangeness and nausea about it, I am also deeply concerned with personality rights and generally feel they're inadequately protected. Beyond annoying street photographers harassing people, shoving cameras in their faces while they walk past you, or worst, playing the peeping tom in public, secretly stealing you into their cameras, the principle position against personality rights has led directly to the bizarre and maddening, self-righteous trend of TikTokers filming people in public. Personality rights, the right to determine how your likeness is used in any context (outside allowances baked into copyright law), are fundamental to exercising a real right to privacy as well. Of course, upholding or acknowledging that right is impossible in a world dominated by surveillance apparatuses, that depends on them to enforce every aspect of the violent, capitalist, and white supremacist state, obsessed with material growth, unending profits, and the reigning in of civil liberties that threaten its unconscionable foundations.

To that end, I don't publish any photographs I've taken where a person is the subject, where a person's likeness could reasonably be used to train a machine learning model, to steal their likeness in some way or other, to remove the basic sense of control we should have over our own faces. There is enough "presumption of consent" in our world that causes physical and psychological harm. Photographing someone is obviously qualitatively and materially different than shooting them with a gun, than physically harming them, than materially stealing from them (usually). But it is not different than speaking for them, about them, with the authority that a "perfect reproduction" (so photographs are perceived) lends, all without their explicit consent. Sometimes a photograph like this is taken by mistake, it's easy to do in urban settings, for someone in the corner of a photograph to accidentally become the subject (nauseating!). Those I just throw away.

So I take pictures of animals, of trees, of flowers, of water, of domestic, urban, and rural scenes. Sometimes people are in these photographs, but only as people, never as "themselves" (a judgement I recognise is entirely subjective and based on my own notions and experiences). But I just can't bring myself to shove a camera in the face of a person I don't know and who hasn't asked me to take their photograph (I'm not so radical, for whatever it's worth, that I would refuse a direct request by someone to photograph them). It feels like shoving, even if it's from 100 metres away. I do photograph myself and my spouse to share with family. For some reason not entirely clear to me, I feel a sense of separation there. Otherwise, I almost always refuse for my own photograph to be taken.

Why photograph at all

The rest of On Photography does a lovely job of challenging assumptions about photographic practice. In particular, it forces the question of why to photograph anything ever at all. I mean, I enjoy taking photographs. But enjoying something isn't reason enough, usually to justify it, especially if there are significant ethical and metaphysical implications to it. When I read Sontag talk about the absurdity of the "virtue of seeing" that is celebrated amongst photographers and the people who follow them, I get what she's going at. It is absurd, for someone to be celebrated merely for seeing. People have said such things about my own photographs at times: "I love the way you see things". Absurd. I'm looking at the same thing everyone else is, my eyes are mostly the same, aside from usually minor physical differences. Certainly my perception is no way privileged when compared to any other given person.

That's not really precisely what people are getting at, when they say "I love the way you see things". In some cases, perhaps the perspective really is all they mean, particularly of well photographed subjects (who needs another picture of Burke Street Mall). There is also a sense of "I love what you decided was worth taking a photograph of", which Sontag also gets around to describing. Which also sounds absurd, particularly if interpreted as though taking a photograph of the thing made it valuable in a way that wasn't perceived by others before. Of course, that's impossible, a photograph of something is not the thing itself, and all you're looking at when you look at a photograph is the photograph, not the things "in" the photograph. This sounds like a contradiction to the previous section, but consider the difference between the way a photograph is perceived (which informs the previous section) and the actual nature of a photograph, which I'm trying to get at in this section. A photograph contains nothing other than a photograph. But popular interpretation understands photography as documentarian, as authoritative on the subject in one sense or another, and is not limited by the artists intentions, because the intention of the artist is almost always removed from the work in its infinite reproducibility over the internet.

I don't know what other people are getting at when they say "I like your photographs", much less when they say so for a specific reason. My photographs make me feel something, especially the ones I remember taking (which is far from all of them). Moreover, taking the photographs makes me feel something. Walking around with camera is the slowest I ever walk anywhere. Taking a photograph prompts me to pause and look at something I would almost certainly have just walked past otherwise. It prompts me to take in light and to look at the same thing day after day. If I had a camera that never saved the images, it just let me spend some time fiddling with focus and composition, that would probably be enough for me. But I do also sometimes like to see a photograph afterwards. And there are people who enjoy my photography, from whom I have no sense of needing to withhold my photographs. If it's a picture of a pretty flower I liked, a bird with particularly spunky personality, of my cat: I like these photographs. And my spouse in particular loves to look at my photographs.

Photographs, when the focus of the photograph isn't the subject, are a whole heap of fun to play with. Some of the best pranks I've concocted were based on photographs. Cameras are also fun. They're gadgets. They can be fiddly, if you want them to be. Lenses too. Free-lensing, lomography, and so forth. These introduce a sense of play when walking around that maybe you could get with a hacky sack or yo-yo, if you were good at it (I'm not!), but otherwise is hard to reproduce, especially by yourself, and almost definitely in a way that keeps you "in the world". There are lots of word pranks I play with when I walk without a camera, but I don't need to seem more aloof than I already am!

So what's the reason to photograph? Simply because I like it, at least within the bounds and rule I have made for myself. I like it and it doesn't hurt anyone. Maybe even other people enjoy my photographs. So why not? Photography is stupid and photographers are dumb, I can't deny it. It's easy to argue the vapidity and vacuousness of all photography, easier than any other "art". The gadgety-ness of it, the popularity of it, the lack of intention brought to the vast majority of photographic practice (and often my abject horror at the intentions when they do exist), etc, all make it trivial to show that photography is stupid and photographers are dumb. But so what, who cares? I like it and it doesn't hurt anyone. What reason more than that do I need? It's the only way I have to reconcile this question, one I clearly think is worth asking and wrestling with. So there, that's why (as if you asked in the first place, which you probably didn't!).