08. Merely Players

Barcelona Cathedral

When I entered the square in front of Barcelona’s great gothic cathedral, I noticed that, every now and then, a cyclist would skilfully weave his or her way across the square from one side to the other; and this reminded me of images I had seen on Flickr where the photographer, when photographing cyclists in a similar context, had used the technique of “panning” to create the impression of speed. So, I set the shutter speed on my camera to 1/40th of a second and looked for the next cyclist to come along. It was a technical challenge I had set myself, to see how well I could execute this type of shot;

Initial attempt at panning: shutter speed too fast; subject too far away

but after a couple of frames, I realised that there was another possibility on offer: to create a kind of paradox of motion where the fastest moving object (the bicycle) appeared to be standing still while the slower moving objects (the pedestrians) appeared to be moving at speed. This was a more creative challenge; and I set about it with some enthusiasm, looking to capture each bicycle as it passed a group of people on foot.

The Paradox of Motion

Sometimes, when you are photographing a series like this, you know when you have captured the perfect shot and you can then walk away, comfortable in the knowledge that you could not possibly achieve any better result. But in this case, I had not reached that point and was still searching for the quintessential capture when the incident with the young woman took place. Another bicycle appeared on my left. I set the focal length on my zoom lens and started tracking the subject as it moved across the square. Unfortunately, there were no pedestrians in the background at this precise moment but I decided to go ahead and take the shot anyway and just as I was about to press the shutter, still panning from left to right, a young woman appeared on the extreme right of the frame. By then, I had committed to taking the shot. I pressed the shutter and perhaps hearing it (for she was that close), the young woman turned and poked her tongue out at me; not in a playful way but in a deliberately prolonged gesture filled with venomous contempt, so emphatic that I was completely taken aback.


My shock was compounded by the incongruity of the gesture and the young woman’s appearance. She was well-dressed, well-groomed, giving the impression of a respectable person of means and standing; an elegant and sophisticated denizen of the Barcelona smart-set. And there she was, confronting me with such vulgarity that I wondered what I could possibly have done to cause such offence. She had already walked on a few paces but I felt compelled to correct the misunderstanding so I called out to her and she stopped and turned back to face me. I tried to tell her that it was not she I was photographing but the cyclist. I tried to convey this information in English but she failed to respond. I tried my broken Spanish but with no more success. Then she simply smiled at me and walked on; and to this day, I do not know if her smile was one of contrition, realising the mistake she had made and apologising for her reaction; or triumph, that she had successfully rattled this individual who had dared to take her photograph on the square.

With the benefit of hindsight, I should have invited her to view the replay of the image in my camera, to prove to her that my intent had not been to photograph her. I would even have deleted the offensive image, had she insisted on it, because it had already been spoiled by her presence; and anyway, I would not have used it because it had failed to achieve the goal I had set myself. With the benefit of hindsight, I should have given her one of my business cards and invited her to look at my website and at my Photostream on Flickr and judge for herself whether I was a serious (albeit amateur) photographer. But I was so shocked by the incident that I failed to do either of these things and now I am left feeling unfairly vilified for what I, in my heart of hearts, know was at most, an accident.

Yet, I do go out into the streets and photograph people; and had I not been dedicated to the challenge I had set myself at that time on the square, I might well have attempted to photograph the same young woman had the context presented what I regarded as a moment worth capturing. So even if I hadn’t committed the “crime” for which I was convicted, it could be argued that I had committed more than enough like  “crimes” in the past to justify my punishment. And once again, that made me reflect on what I do with my camera.

I find people endlessly fascinating because they are in constant flux, responding to each other, responding to their ever-changing environment, responding even to that in their lives which doesn’t change, which presents to them a monotony of sameness from which they seek escape or release. But when I photograph people in the street, candidly, it is not always the person that I am photographing, not always the individual per se, but what that person or individual represents. This might sound to you like sophistry and self-justification but I’ll try to explain:

I have written before about how I see photographs falling into two broad categories: those that are predominantly pictorial, and those that are predominantly narrative. In a predominantly pictorial image, I see each of the elements, whether they are buildings or trees or people, in terms of lines and shapes, light and shade, colours and hues. From a pictorial point of view, a person is just another object and to all intents and purposes may as well be inanimate. Yet every object in a photograph brings with it associations, some of which are universal and some of which are peculiar to each individual (viewer); and these associations add to the overall message conveyed by the image. Consequently, the choice of objects used contributes significantly to the meaning of the image. For example, if I took a photograph of a beautiful young woman sitting on a wall, then took the same photograph, replacing the young woman with a beautiful bonsai tree, the meaning of the two images would be quite different, even though each subject was equally beautiful and elegant in its own way. My point, however, is that from a purely pictorial point of view, I’d have no more interest in the life and hopes and dreams and fears of the young woman than I would in those of the bonsai tree. In this context, I am interested only in their decorative properties; and to illustrate the point, I offer this image I took, also in Barcelona, of a mannequin standing in a shop doorway. The light on her face was beautiful (as you might agree) and the combination of her pose and the grafitti suggested an idea to me. I doubt that a real woman in this shot would make a more successful image.

Kiss kiss

The choice and use of human objects in an image that is predominantly narrative, however, is more complex; and here I must stress that I am talking about my personal experience and not trying to purvey what I am about to say as some sort of universal truth. For the purposes of this discussion, I feel that narrative images must first be further broken down into two sub-categories: documentary and fictional. Documentary-narrative photographs clearly do tell the story of the (real) individual(s) portrayed in the image. When I take a photograph of a farmer ploughing a field, I am photographing that actual farmer and this is what I want the viewer to know. He may represent all farmers or a group of farmers but I have unequivocally chosen him to represent them. I have made him their spokesman. When I use people in a fictional-narrative image, however, I think of them as actors playing roles I have devised for them in a piece of theatre I have created (usually spontaneously) in my imagination. I do not think of myself as a portraitist, whose job it is to discover and communicate to the viewer through the portrait some key quality or trait of the sitter. In my fictional-narrative image, I am not (and this will sound cynical, I’m sure) interested in who the person really is; only in how well they suit the role I have devised for them to play. When we go to the cinema and watch an actor play the part of a villain, we suspend belief in the true personality of the actor for the duration of the film and replace it with an acceptance of the villain he is portraying. If the same actor is playing a hero in the next film we see, we are equally willing to accept him as a hero for the duration of the film (provided that the performance is convincing enough). So, in my fictional-narrative photographs, the people I depict are not the real people but the characters I have enlisted them to portray. How could it be otherwise? I have probably never seen these people before. I may never see them again. I know nothing about them: what they do, what they think, how they feel; what they want from life. I am simply casting them in my drama based on the impression they have made on me at the time.

Of course, I am selective in my casting. In a pictorial sense, I am looking for lines and shapes and light and shade that suit the overall impression of the image I hope to create. For example, in a backlit shot, I prefer people with light coloured hair (blond, red, grey/white) because the light glows more brightly in their hair; whereas in a front-lit shot, I like black hair because it picks up the shine better. This has nothing to do with the individual person. It is purely a pictorial preference. Likewise, in a fictional-narrative shot, I am looking for someone whose appearance immediately conveys the essence of the character I am trying to cast. And as always in candid street photography, you have to make the best of what is available to you. The alternative is to not take the shot at all.

This all probably sounds like I don’t really care about people at all; that I just cynically use them for my own purposes. And if this is the case, it occurs to me that it is somehow more reprehensible than the simpler idea of photographing people in the street without their permission. I am arguing that, even if I had intentionally photographed the young woman who poked out her tongue at me that day in Barcelona, I would not really have been photographing her. I would merely have been using her image to fill a space on my canvass or tell a story that had nothing whatsoever to do with who she was. In other words, I wouldn’t have been telling the world about her; I would simply have been using her to tell the world about something I felt was worth telling. I would have been using her as a fashion photographer uses a model to show off someone else’s clothing line.

On the other hand, I can argue that, in doing what I do, I am selecting those I photograph to collaborate with me in a creative process whose outcome may immortalise them. That might sound terribly conceited on my part but what drives me is the hope that, one day, I will take a photograph that will speak to the world; and in all probability, if I ever achieve this goal, one or more of those unwitting passers-by will be in it. Think of the man caught jumping a puddle by Henri Cartier-Bresson in 1932. Who would have imagined then that his image would become an icon of his time? And for those passers-by I capture, that which might have begun for them as a mundane walk down the street, may be recorded for posterity as a thing of beauty; and, that which might have started for them as just another day, may be transformed into a story that could change how others view the world. Of course, since they are unwitting collaborators for the most part, they themselves may never become aware of the impact they have had. But if there is any validity at all in the assumptions of chaos theory, it is almost certain that the effect of their being photographed will eventually touch them somehow, even if only one other person sees the photograph.

William Shakespeare, the English dramatist, once wrote:

All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players[1]

I hold this to be true; and indeed it is the cornerstone of what I do as a photographer. Within the limits of my ability, I try to capture the drama, the comedy, the tragedy and the farce that is life; yes, and the beauty and ugliness too. And to do this, I have to photograph the players. There is no other way. This is my motive. I have none ulterior. And if people misjudge me in this, I can do no more than to remind them of the words attributed to King Edward III of England:

Honi soit qui mal y pense

(Evil be who evil thinks)

Consequently, I do not see anything contemptible in what I do; and I cannot imagine what was going through the mind of the young woman on the square that day to provoke such a hostile reaction from her. Perhaps she ascribed to me some stereotype of a middle-aged man taking photographs of young women on the street for purposes best described as salacious. I really don’t know. But the interesting thing is that, of all the people I photographed on the streets of Barcelona that day – and there were many of them – she, as a result of her action, is the only one who interests me now as a real person. For a start, she is the only one who engaged with me, as far as I can recall. She tore down the persona with which I might have invested her (had I actually noticed her in the first place and intended to photograph her); and forced me to accept a persona of her own choosing. Now, she intrigues me. I would like to meet her, to listen to her story, to understand what motivates her. That’s all. But there is little likelihood of that ever happening.

I will return to Barcelona at the end of April this year for a brief stay but the circumstances of my trip then make it unlikely that I will have time to spend in the city. And even if that were possible, the probability of my meeting her again by chance is infinitesimally small. Perhaps she will read this, recognise herself and contact me. But once again, the odds are heavily against it. So the irony is that I, the photographer who snatches souls from unsuspecting passers-by, have had my soul snatched by the young woman who confronted me and did to me what I do to others: imposed upon me a persona of her own invention. But if this is the case, the difference between us is that I never imagine that the persona I have created for the people I photograph is real. She, apparently, didn’t care who I really was; only that I represented (to her) something that angered her. Luckily for me, she didn’t have a camera with her!!!

[1] As You Like It, Act II, Scene VII


6 thoughts on “08. Merely Players

  1. Food for Thought

    First reaction: We all make each other in to characters of a play of our own making. The difference to me seems in the willingness, to look beyond projection and make a real connection.

    Women have such issues with their image first and the taking of it second, it is no wonder to get some not all too favorable reactions. Living in a tourist town myself, the pointing of cameras can be very annoying and I have felt like dodging one lens after another. Put me in a bad mood and that makes for not too much pleasantness. But on occasion a photographer makes that personal connection, with me, and to my great surprise suddenly I don’t mind, I decided to trust and let it be and let the photographer do whatever.

    I am sorry you had another ugly kinda encounter on the streets and I am delighted that it propels you in to your creativity and expression.

  2. It’s too late at night for my brain to work properly. I need to think more about the ideas you’ve presented. But first, your thinking about people as pieces that might be used in an image doesn’t trivialize them as persons. As an artist, your brain has to think along these lines. They are persons. And they can also act as something else.

    And have you heard the story about the puddle jumper being asked to do it again by Cartier-Bresson so that he could capture the shot?

  3. Actually, John, I hadn’t heard that (about the puddle jumper); but after the Iwo Jima flag-raising shot I’m not surprised. Pity though, because it rather takes the romance out of the story, don’t you think?

    Om, the point I was trying to make was that I’d had no intention of photographing the young woman. It was a genuine accident. Of course, she wasn’t to know that; and I DID try to connect with her to clarify the situation; but it didn’t work out.

  4. Hola John,
    No te preocupes. Cada país tiene una educación diferente, para un anglosajón una burla es una sorpresa a veces desagradable, para un latino-mediterraneo puede ser un divertimento muy teatral. Seguramente quiso advertirte que cuando vieses su cara en la foto te reirías.
    Un abrazo

  5. LOL, with respect to Cartier-Bresson possibly having asked the young man to again jump the puddle, if true I admire him even more. I admire that he saw, recognised the potential, and then had the chutzpah to ask for it again. I think, if true, it speaks volumes about his artistry.

  6. I think that in this kind of situation the thing to do is put a curse on her and go back to work and forget about her.
    There are as many ways to miss a shot as there are ways to lose a horse race.

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