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Who is that masked man?

All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.

Susan Sontag

I'm special

Recently I’ve had a lot of conversations with fellow photography enthusiasts about how to go about taking pictures of people. If you see someone in the street that you’d like to photograph, do you ask them straight away for permission to take their picture, thereby potentially ruining the spontaneity of the moment that you wanted to capture? Or do you take the picture and ask for permission retrospectively? Or take it surreptitiously and hope they haven’t noticed? All are fraught in one way or another, and all wannabe street photographers seem to face this dilemma.

As my confidence with a camera increases, I’m feeling more of a desire to point my lens towards people – in addition to landscapes and architecture – so I’m having more frequent exchanges with potential “subjects” and have found, to my delight, that most of the exchanges have been incredibly positive and enriching. One day when I was walking around Coppet, on the shores of Lake Geneva, I asked a man sweeping the street if I could take a picture of him and his cart. Perhaps it was my hilariously broken French that made him so accommodating. Or the fact that I’m so happy when I’m out taking pictures that I’m constantly grinning and he found my happiness somehow infectious. Whatever it was, he smiled and laughed and chatted with me, then stood by his cart for a picture, then stepped away while I took a picture just of the cart. It was a wonderful few minutes which gave me more confidence for the next exchange.

Coppet cart

Another day, as I walked around Geneva, I was thinking about family portraits, which is the 2014 theme for the photography club that I’m in. As I thought about it I saw two women walking towards me who I supposed were mother and daughter. I love seeing mothers and daughters together, whether older than me or younger. Having myself been motherless for over 30 years and having had to comes to terms recently with the probably that I’ll never actually become a mother, I find the sight of mothers and daughters enjoying one another’s company incredibly potent, and I’m interested in exploring the relationship through the medium of pictures.

I can never assume in France and Switzerland that I share a common language with the people I’d like to photograph, so as these two women approached I asked in French if I could take their picture, and made sure that I communicated as much through body language – smiling and pointing at my camera – as through words. They didn’t speak, but silently nodded. Their facial expressions remained unchanged, I took their picture and said thank you, and they nodded once more and moved gracefully on.

Mother and daughter
When I was in London for the weekend recently I was so thrilled not to have to contemplate a language barrier that I was much less shy than usual about asking people whether I could point my lens in their direction. I don’t know if it was because I was at Borough Market, where people go as much to see and be seen as to buy amazing food, but whatever the reason, people were universally pleased to be asked. Nobody asked why I wanted to take their picture, they just stood and smiled while and clicked, then I thanked them and we all moved on. These exchanges resulted in pictures like these.

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I also had some experiences, that weekend, of people in the street wanting to help me, without me soliciting their advice, to get the best possible shot. In the first instance there was a man watching me as I took a picture of an interesting looking building. When I started talking to him, he agreed with me that the building was interesting but said that I hadn’t taken it from the best possible angle. He showed me that by standing in a slightly different place, I could capture not just that building, but also the Gherkin reflected off its glass walls. And later another man, standing looking up at the sky with his very professional-looking camera, saw that my eye had followed his to see what he was seeing, and so explained to me that we was trying to capture a picture of the Shard reaching in the heavens towards the top of the nearby sculpture. He wished me luck for getting the shot and moved on.

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All of these wonderful exchanges have helped not just to build my confidence in asking people whether I can take their picture, but also to recognise the potential for wonderful human interactions in the act of doing so. To the extent, in fact, that I’ve begun to feel a little sorry for the people who refuse the possibility of such exchanges. For example, one day in Geneva I saw a woman feeding the seagulls by the lake. My camera was very obviously not pointing towards her, but at the birds that swooped and dived over the water to grab their share of the food she was throwing in the air. The woman saw me with my camera and started yelling at me. My French wasn’t good enough to allow me to understand all of what she said, but I know it was unsavoury and I’m pretty sure that at one point she instructed the birds to pluck my eyes out. I think if I hadn’t had other lovely exchanges with people, this experience would have sent me scuttling back to the safety of photographing flowers. As it was, though, I just felt a bit sad for her, with all that suspicion and anger and misdirected rage. I wished her a happy day and moved on to more willing participants in the photographic exchange.

Having said all that, though, it’s so wonderful to occasionally find events where people’s whole reason for participating is to be photographed and admired. There’s no need for awkward exchanges – they’re there so that you might tell capture their beauty and grace for posterity. This weekend’s Venetian Carnival in Annecy was one such wonderful event. With any self-consciousness removed by the anonymity offered by their masks, the people strutted and preened and posed and positively delighted in being admired and photographed. This makes life easy for a fledging photographer like me. And the results make me hope that one day I’ll be able to capture people just as unselfconsciously when their masks – and mine – are removed.

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6 thoughts on “Who is that masked man?

  1. Your pictures are as beautiful as your words. The paragraph about taking shots of mothers and daughters was particularly poignant. Wonderful.

  2. Great post! Yes, I think asking makes a difference. At my job, I sometimes see people trying to take my picture without asking, and quite frankly I react more like your seagull lady and put a newspaper in front of my face or something (in my line of work there are many reasons to be suspicious of photographers) but recently I had a young lady of about 13 or so ask to take her picture with me after a flight, and even though it was the end of a long day for me and I probably looked a fright, I was happy to do this for her. She was also collecting pilot’s signatures in her “Young Eagles” logbook, and I thought it was an honor to be asked! Best of luck with your photography, your pictures are really good!

    • Thank you so much for reading and for your input on the subject. Yes, you’re right – there are times when it’s just not appropriate to take people’s pictures without their permission, and in your line of work a surreptitious photographer could be much more threatening than your average happy snapper. It’s good to be reminded to always think about context and the best way of approaching a possible “subject”. It sounds as though the young lady you described is really going places! And how wonderful that she’s looking up to extraordinary people like you as role models! Thanks again for reading and for taking the time to comment.

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