A successful photographer must be adept at the skills of observation. I watch all types of people in all ways necessary for my purposes. And, I’m good at doing it without detection when I choose to execute that skill set. As I wander aimlessly around various settings, feigning distraction with other thoughts, I’m actually carefully watching and assessing the theatrics of people who cross my path.
I mentally zoom in on their possible thoughts while allowing their physical presence and interaction with those around them to inform me. I might hang back or I might move in closer. I make my decisions depending on my desired outcomes. If I don’t feel talkative, miming aloofness to the surroundings works great. But, I have some Spanish and I’m never afraid to wade in with camera, questions and comments.
It’s important to know what you are photographing and why you are making the photograph. After all, every photograph should have a purpose. It’s not fair to the subject to just hit at it. A strong interpretation is always more informative or thought provoking. Besides, your viewers will see that you’ve cheated if you don’t take a few moments to develop your composition while considering the story that you want to tell. Your photograph will be coming up shy on their satisfaction meter if you don’t pay your scene, and subsequent photograph of the same, the respect that they deserve.
I work very hard to not interrupt meaningful or formative scenes that I encounter. Spontaneity is lost when a scene is interrupted by someone or something that isn’t a part of it. Often times I shoot remaining physically disconnected from the scene. In fewer instances, I choose to enter the scene to observe more closely, ask my questions and make my comments if appropriate. Using this method, when I finish with the interchange, I will not have made a photograph. As I begin showing disinterest or distraction, people return to what they were doing. My presence is quickly forgotten and then I go to work with my camera. The scene settles back down in a few minutes and you are sometimes fortunate enough to make a better photograph than you could have without having introduced yourself.
Even if I’m told something about a person’s day or their life, I might not interpret the person and scene with my camera exactly the way they’ve portrayed things to me. Folks regularly apply filters and add ingredients, often embellishing their stories forming them into something they want you to hear or think. When I sense this, I very seldom make any photograph choosing instead to quickly move on to a scene that is more easily vetted with known realities. Or, I might shoot anyway if what I am looking at is pretty compelling and I can gain the camera perspective necessary for my story. I wish to record the story that I see, without the additions and subtractions that others may provide.
That’s right, I use camera and lens combinations in conjunction with careful positioning of the same to interpret scenes the way I want and to release the stories they hold as I see them. Many people I’ve shared this information with are surprised. But, the camera is a storyteller, and a very keen one at that. The camera is solely a mechanical device void of reason, composition skills or insight. However, the operator would be expected to have the abilities listed as a practicing photographer. So, in essence, a photographer is a storyteller. He or she gets to tell the story the way they want to, no one else has a say. The better they are with their equipment, the better their stories would be expected to be. Making great photographs that tell wonderful stories has less than 10% to do with equipment. It has more than 90% to do with the ability to operate what you have and to mentally see stories so that appropriate compositions are revealed to you. In the world of photography, that is referred to as pre-visualization.
Concerning my photograph, “Thoughts,” that I have chosen to share with you today, I never entered the scene prior to creating the image.
I watched the woman closely as I waited on a stone bench adjacent to hers. My camera was under a worn jacket that I sometimes use as a prop to help me more easily melt into the theatrical stage of the street. The area behind her was busy with passersby. I wanted that area blank, passersby were not a part of my story. So I waited. She was making numerous gestures as she sat quietly, apparently overwhelmed with her own private thoughts. One gesture was often repeated, she touched her right hand to her right eye and held it there…momentarily denying herself full view of the world. I started thinking about how great it would be if I could shut out the part of something I didn’t like by just covering one of my eyes to it. And, those thoughts led me to choosing my composition and my decision to inflict a certain starkness into the scene using a limited color palate along with the edginess brought about by the textures I chose to reveal in her hat and her wrap. Her face holds the lines of a map which an astute reader can use to see where she has been in her life. They grant a peculiar insight about her persona.
I found the woman beautiful to my sight; I cared for her without knowledge of her. She had many facets of beauty that I considered as I prepared to create her street portrait. However, much of her beauty I could so clearly see might be lost to the eye of the hasty. Suddenly, the area behind her was void of people and provided the nicely out-of-focus white wall I desired. Her right hand touched her face and momentarily obscured the vision of her right eye. She stared into some scene that even I couldn’t see. The camera recorded the moment…in just the way I intended. Since I couldn’t know exactly what her thoughts were, I left that to be pondered…by both of us. Yes, I mean you and me. I left the blanks open so you can write the rest of her story in your own mind. I know you’ll enjoy finding out about this beautiful woman and the events of her life as you unwind the photograph I’ve given you. After all, the name of the photograph is “Thoughts”…hers or yours will both be suitable for my purposes.