The camera is a powerful tool – to not only capture photos, but also in its ability to connect, whether it’s between the subject and the photographer or the subject and the viewer. How strong a connection depends on how the camera is being used. If the photographer interacts and becomes a participant in an event, usually the connection will be much stronger. Likewise, and in contrary, if the photographer stands back and becomes an observer, clearly the connection between the subject and the photographer will diminish, if not cease completely – as will the connection between the subject and the viewer.
The latter doesn’t mean that such pictures are necessarily less strong or less captivating, but they play on different strings. Instead of cuing in on a connection, we become fascinated by a fly-on-the-wall look at an event, and we take in more of the whole scenery – not only the main subject. The unobtrusively captured photo can depict events or moments that not necessarily relate, but by being rendered next to each other in time and space, makes a contextual connection instead. The late and renowned Henri Cartier-Bresson was a master observer at such.
Obviously, there is a big difference between being part of the action, and just being a witness to the action. I am very much a participating photographer, but every so often, I enjoy the role of the observer. Personally, I believe it’s easier to make stronger images by connecting to people I photograph – by the inherent connection being established between me and whoever I photograph. However, one way is not better than the other. Whichever way you choose, though, has practical, aesthetical, moral and even legal implications – at least when photographing people.
As an observer, you do not generally interfere with the course of events. On the other hand, if you are a participant rather than an observer then by taking photographs, you are directly interfering with the event. From a photographic point of view, it means that the images you get may be more powerful, but not necessarily as genuine because the subjects are aware of the camera and will almost certainly change their behaviour accordingly, which again changes the image and changes the course of events because the subjects change the way they act around the camera. As an observing photographer, you will capture the natural reactions of your subjects – but at the expense of involvement for the viewing audience.
There are times when participating in the event is not the right approach. Think photojournalism. By participating you change the event – and that might be, at least in certain situations, completely wrong. I have covered marches and protests, which went by quietly and peacefully, that is until a bunch of photographer started to mingle with the protesters. Suddenly the animosity rose and the protest turned much more aggressive, all for the sake of the photographers. Or, even worse, in hostage situations, when hostages are being killed for the benefit of the photographer. Absolutely unacceptable, of course.
Likewise, there are times when you should not be a passive observer. In intimate social situations, for example, hiding behind your camera would just come across as awkward, antisocial and downright rude. Portraiture is another example. People naturally connect and express emotions more easily when there is another human on the receiving end. Moreover, of course, there is always the discussion about whether or not to photograph people on the street without their knowing and consent.
More so than other genres, people photography is fraught with concerns of morality. These concerns usually stem from the basic right to look and to be looked at. Is it right to photograph people without their knowledge? How should you behave when taking someone’s photograph? Where do you draw the line between private and public? Some of these boundaries are defined by law, others by you. When photographing people, always be very aware of the moral implications of your practise, if for no better reason than to defend yourself, and you pictures, if necessary.
I often go for a compromise between observing and participating. I engage with people that I want to take photographs of. But then I keep at it, and wait for the moment when people don’t longer notice me. They are still aware of me, but more and more I become an observer. People relax and I get to capture the candid moments.