If you shoot pictures over a long period of time, it is likely your “artistic” sensibilities will change. This becomes more true as you become aware of the large body of incredible photographic work out there and then become critical of your own work. Not only does this change in understanding of what “good photography” often lead to taking better pictures, it also leads the photographers into subject areas that the public, at large, does not understand.
Normally, any camera owner at least starts out capturing images that, in some way, document our lives: We photograph our kids, our vacations and even our home projects. Just a quick glance at Facebook verifies the wide and various objects of our pictures. General the purpose of the photo is soley to capture an image of the subject and sometimes with the intent to capture the environment as well. The subject of the photo is the whole purpose of the photo. But as photographers mature, there are other aspects that starts holding sway – lighting, color, patterns and textures, among other things. We start looking less at what the subject is and more often at the photographic qualities of subject. So the qualities some photographers find so attractive will lead them to subjects that seem, to the world at large, strange or even, to some degree, inappropriate. Thus, photographers can stand for long periods of time photographing things that make the average citizen scratch their heads in puzzlement.
Photography, like any other art form, opens our eyes to the beauty, the wonder and the majesty of what surrounds us…to those very things that we might otherwise have overlooked. The more accustomed we become to looking beyond the function and into the form the more we realize what strange and wonderful things lie beneath the mundane shroud that normally covers our eyes. To paraphrase G. K. Chesterton, we can have the thrill of adventure in traveling to a far off country while never leaving home.
But this is not without a cost Not only do people scratch their head in puzzlement as we stand photographing the mundane, they often stare at us with suspicion.
Just to illustrate this point: on a nice cloudy afternoon I took the scenic route, driving around to photograph a particular couple of abandoned farm houses I had in mind. Shooting at the first house went without a problem. Moving on to the second planned house nothing notable occurred. But when I drove less than a mile from the second abandoned house, there was a problem.
Then, in the country was an interesting old farm house that was neither abandoned nor empty. So after getting out my tripod, setting up up across the road and standing in the ditch taking pictures a pickup truck pulls up and an older fellow asks me what I was doing and why I was taking pictures. I assumed that this man was a neighbor to the house I previously photographed who apparently saw me walking around. When I told him that I was shooting old houses in the country because they were object worthy to photograph, he gave me an incredulous stare. Then he let me know that there have been a number of burglaries in the area and that he wouldn’t be surprised if the owner of the house would take a shot at me (with a gun, not a camera) if he saw me taking pictures of the house….Apparently before committing their crimes, robbers take pictures of the front of the homes, in broad daylight, using a tripod. Rather than discuss with the man his very flawed logic I thanked him for his concern and left.
On the way home there is an abandoned commercial building that sits right on a busy highway, one that I had in mind to photography for a long time. After getting out and shooting it at every possible angle, guess what happened? Yup, somebody stopped and asked me what I was doing. Apparently the person concerned about my nefarious activity was the mother of the owner of the dilapidated building. After explaining to her what I was doing, she was cool with that. She stated that she had seen someone photographing the building mere weeks ago and when she told her son, he asked her why she didn’t find out what was going on. Apparently, the thought of somebody finding that old building an interesting subject to shoot never crossed his mind. I took the time to explain to the woman WHY I liked this building and why other people would love to shoot it as well. Hopefully, that education will help some other photographer down the line.
So what is my point with this rant? Photography has been around for almost 200 years. It has been used by the masses for at least 50 years. In all this time, with the proliferation of cameras, even to the point of being in almost every single cell phone, one would think the fear and suspicion of a photograph would be long gone. One can at least understand native peoples who, never having never seen such technology, may be superstitiously afraid that pictures are a device to strip them of their very souls. But why the fear in the citizens in 21st century America?
This is not a solitary event, for this kind of thing has played out over and over throughout the years in varying degrees of “conflict.” After doing a bit of pondering I conclude there are two aspects to this fear and loathing. One part is due to people’s blindness to the things photographers often see. While we both look at the same thing, but what the photographers SEES is vastly different from the angry farmer. We are photographing lines, colors, textures and perhaps ironic juxtapositions but they see us a merely photographing a person’s home. This ties in with the second part, mistrust.
If a stranger does something that a viewer doesn’t understand, the natural inclination is to assume the stranger is up to no good. After all, what other explanation could there be? This is similar to being in the company of strangers speaking a different, and in comprehendible, language in front of us. What is often out first thoughts as were hear them boisterously laugh an occasionally look in our direction? That’s right, that they are talking about US.
This is problem for me since I want to do a series of photographs of people’s homes. This will undoubtedly put me in conflict with people since their homes are very personal. While there is no doubt as to the legality of my actions, that does not keep people from being hugely suspicious. Most likely this will cause me to shoot early in the morning, before people are up and about. But doesn’t that make my actions even more suspicious; sneaking around in the early morning? So either I give up my project or I live with the fact that I will be feared and loathed, even in Illinois.