Looking through old family photo albums, there is usually one person not pictured very often. This, of course, is the person behind the camera. They are the documentarians of what is happening, or oftentimes, the director of what is happening. Sit here. Smile. Drop your arms. Actually smile. Stop making that face. Perfect.
These documentarians of life are vital to capturing beautiful (and not so beautiful) moments in time. More broadly, photographers put themselves in the midst of the action – from war zones to back yard barbecues – and freeze a slice of time so that others can see it, reflect on it, remember it, and cherish it. Everyone appreciates that these photographers do what they do. But is it problematic to remove oneself from the moment to take a picture?
Today, people photograph their food, their feet, their surroundings, their friends and anything else that’s happening even if it doesn’t reach the level of “mildly interesting.” It’s created an observer culture that straddles the line between documentation and voyeurism; between the joyous capture of life and an undeniable distancing effect.
With the advent of camera phones and social media, we’re oversaturated with pictures of people “living.” The great irony is that to take the picture, you have to pause living. You have to get into your head and out of what’s happening.
This is not a value judgment on whether it’s wrong or right – it just troubles me. It troubles me how much importance is put on capturing moments in time instead of enjoying them. I don’t want to be an observer in my own life and look back on pictures to remember good times. I want to experience those times and remember them on their own merit. I don’t want to step away from existence to capture existence.
Sometimes, however, someone has to do just that.
It’s a fine line to draw, but I think what it comes down to is sacrifice. I don’t believe photographers lead hollow, empty lives; quite the opposite. I think people who photograph everything from political riots to poverty to their families playing kickball are incredibly important. There is a need to unselfishly share what they’ve seen; what they’ve experienced. In the action of snapping a photo, they take away from their own experience in order to create a new experience for someone who wasn’t there.
A true photographer makes a sacrifice, and gives his or her eyes to the people who view the work. A true photographer gives away an authentic experience of a moment so that the authenticity is captured for the rest of the world, or maybe, just one person. A true photographer does dissociate – it’s simply an intangible hazard of the trade.
So yes, most photographers live. There is an element of removal that comes from wielding a camera, but most photographers live. And more importantly, they remove themselves so others can insert themselves – an equal transaction in the grand collective of experiential currency.
For that, I say: Thank you.