I hear it a lot from family and friends. On a superficial level it seems odd – why refuse something that has no impact and could happen anyway? And don’t you understand that I want to take your picture because I like you? I was curious to develop an idea I’d written about before, but encountered personally quite recently. So I asked.
One theme that came out strongly, and often first, is ‘I don’t like the way I look’. So, ok, there is always a responsibility on the photographer to find and show the best of people. But I wondered how a photograph was different to what you saw in a mirror. From asking, I’m told that a mirror is a totally different thing. You look into a mirror for a reason, like brushing your hair. Your image has a purpose. If you don’t like a part of what you see, you can look at a different part or focus on the task. A mirror is under your control and nobody else can see what you see. You can adjust the image as you wish – the frog belly under your chin goes away if you raise your head. It also has no persistence – your bleary eyes and pallid morning skin are gone forever when you turn away. Photographs are persistent and take away any control you have over what you see. Once that paunch is captured, it exists forever.
This leads to another observation that almost nobody is content with how they look: everybody would change something. And the risk in a photograph is that it has no sympathy. I have skinny chicken legs so I think I look weird, seen full length. I’d like to say I have a good feature that you could focus on, but it’s all pretty average. So if you take a picture of me, I would be conscious that you really want a picture of someone who looks like a confused stork. How much harder must it be for women, who have an expectation of appearance imposed on them? See selfie filters for further proof.
In a conversation we are happy to make and hold eye contact with another person. We make expressions and pull faces. But when the other person raises a camera something comes between you. There is a new person in the conversation who only takes. This is nothing to do with snaps – the grabbed pictures that remind you of an event or a time or the people you were with. The difference is the intention – a snap is a reminder with no motive; a portrait has a reason behind it. And a conversation stops when one person drops out to take rather than share.
I think this leads to the next point, which is distrust of motive. If I ask for my picture to be taken, I know why I’m doing it and what it is for. If someone else wants my picture I don’t know how it will be used or what it is for. I was out on a photo-walk recently and this came up. I wanted a picture of a shop doorway but the shopkeeper came out to stand at their street display. They were going to be in shot, but would have enhanced the picture. So I asked if I could take their picture. They declined, so I didn’t. Another member of our group then mentioned they had taken a picture of me, and did I mind. In this case, not at all and it was good of them to ask. But the issue is one of trust: why are you taking pictures of me? The solution would be to ask, give the reason, and offer to share the results. And don’t take offence at a refusal. And really don’t be a creep. If you wouldn’t be comfortable as the subject, don’t take the picture. This must figure even stronger for women, who spend their lives under the male gaze and with the constant background tension of the common male expectation that women exist for men.
Saying that though, taking pictures at a public event is different. People engaged in an activity or sport in public must accept that other people will want pictures of what they are doing. The interest is in the activity, and this is legitimate. Although I have seen some questionable shots of women playing sports. So the same rules apply: don’t be a creep.
And then, we have the actual portrait. I have pictures of my ancestors that have huge value. Some are formal portraits and some are the ‘stand there and I’ll take your picture’ variety. The formal portraits were obviously intentional. In an age when private photography was rare they preserved a statement of the subject’s status and appearance. My mum has two large paintings that are separate portraits of each of her grandparents (one set) when they married. The pictures are actually over-painted photographic prints, which would have have been a quick and cheaper way to get a good likeness. I’ve also got some of the formal ‘sat in a chair and frowning’ pictures. All of them are precious because they are family. I can see the value in having pictures of yourself at different ages to hand on, but the sheer volume of transient images we’re drowning in will probably bury the one or two pictures that summarise you and would entertain your grandkids. So perhaps there is value in relenting to at least one good environmental portrait so that future people can see who you were.
There is also memory. My wife travelled the world when she was younger but didn’t take any pictures. She has all the memories but nothing she can actually show me or the boys. The picture below is my grandmother as a young woman. She is the same person holding her great-grandson if you follow the memory link above.
Another lesson that comes from this is to get pictures of yourself when you are young. Friends pass and things change, but a picture of the daft younger version of yourself will remind you that, no matter what the world does, you were gorgeous. It’s all still in there, just toned down with some saggy bits and hair migrating from your head to your ears and eyebrows.
And yet, despite all this, the most interesting photographs are the ones with people in. Other than snaps they might be the hardest to take, for all the reasons above. Perhaps this is why so many photographers take landscapes? Taking an informal snap of your chums on your phone is fun. Get a ‘real’ camera and people question your motives and the rest of it. One of the reasons I like the pukey-bear-cam is that it breaks down the barrier by being informal and silly, with immediate results that are genuine snaps and not some Gollum-like Precious that you will perve over later.
In summary – don’t be evil. Don’t even be a little bit evil, which is weevil. Get as many informal pictures as you can, as they will become more valuable to you with time. Definitely take pictures of people, as people are probably the most interesting thing there is. But have some respect for others. Noli esse asinus as we used to say when I was a boy.