Runcible Blog

thoughts on pedestrians and photography

What is it about Boston that turns people so cold? Look at people on the street or on the T, and they're either staring into their phones or else averting their eyes. When I see people staring nervously off at nothing, I imagine them thinking, "ok, pretend that you see something over there. Yup, that's it — don't look at anyone else." Everybody is in his own little bubble, trying desperately to keep up the illusion that there aren't thousands of other people living right around him.

Another thing I notice is that people who are outside are rarely outside just to hang out. They're on their way to somewhere very important, and if teleportation existed, I'm sure the streets would be nearly empty aside from the bums. Sure, some folks hang out at grassy areas in the sun, but they are the exception, and even then, they're often using their computers. Who just wanders around anymore? Who walks and takes the time to appreciate the world around us?

In nice weather, I used to pace up and down Mass Ave for hours, just observing, paying attention. Even if I never took a picture, it was still worth doing. It was my way of being in the world. Now, that practice is discouraging to me because I notice how estranged we are from each other.

I met a 90 year old photographer in Stockbridge who remarked that people there just walk down the street obliviously looking at their own shopping bags thinking, "Oh, look what I bought." His words rang true, although around here, people might be thinking, "Am i there yet? Get me off this street."

What about photography? Well, forget about it in Boston. I hadn't thought about how particularly bad this city is for photography until a teacher recently confirmed my suspicions — apparently, even famous photographers from the area refuse to work here because the people are too uptight. Actually, I don't know what the issue is, but it must be some kind of paranoia. A few weeks ago, I saw a well-dressed business woman walking toward me, eating an ice cream cone (a playful scene, if obvious). As I raised the camera to my eye, she yelled, "No! No!" and put her hand up. Yikes! Ok. Another guy, after I took his picture, stumbled a bit and looked shocked, as if I had stabbed him.

Although I genuinely do not understand this response, I think that some photographers share the blame for this collective paranoia. I see many sneaky photogs who shoot from the hip or from across the street, almost like peeping Toms. At one outdoor festival, I witnessed one guy moving through the crowd, discreetly taking shots of girls' cleavage. Nice for him, I suppose, but I think that as discreet as he was, there's still the sense that he's a creepy guy being sneaky with a camera. He gives us a bad reputation.

These days, I'm even concerned about how I hold my camera. I usually hold it facing down, with my finger on the shutter button, but then I notice people looking skeptically at me and the camera, as if I'm shooting their butts or something. I've experimented with walking around with the lens against my cheek, indicating that I'm not secretly photographing anybody. I think that helps, but it's tiring. If only they knew that if I wanted to make a picture it would be quite obvious what I was doing.

People seem to think that someone wielding a camera is out to steal something from them. What is there to take? What secret do you think I can see? Beats me. Even the most visually boring person in the world looks quizzically at my camera, seemingly thinking, "Uh oh, did he get me? What's he up to?" I want to say, "Don't worry, you are incredibly boring, and just because I have this camera doesn't mean I want to make a boring picture of you. Carry on."

Other places are more friendly to photographers. New York takes the cake — cameras are deeply understood, and besides, everybody there wants to be a star. I do not know what went wrong with Boston. Maybe puritanical modesty persists in the water here...

Back to the sneaky photographer issue: it really bugs me. I recently saw photo on Flickr by a local photographer. It was a photo of a homeless veteran with a caption that said something along the lines of "this man must have a story to tell. I don't know what his story is, but blah blah blah" followed by a paragraph about war and veterans or something like that. I left a comment saying that if the photographer wanted to know the guy's story, he or she could've talked to him, considering the guy was sitting just feet away. Furthermore, I commented about this photographer's tendency to shoot people from 20 feet away, as if the subjects are going to bite. I tried to say (in a constructive way) that getting closer and maybe engaging the subjects will lead to better photos. Certainly if the intention is to tell someone's "story," then the photographer needs to get closer and be less sneaky.

Well, the photographer was upset with my remarks, deleted my comment, blocked me from commenting further, and replied, "You must disagree with my opinions about war. You must be a veteran. Yadda yadda... Never before has somebody criticized me like that on Flickr. How patriarchal, yadda yadda." Then I remembered another thing my teacher was adamant about: don't waste your time on Flickr. If you've got a community of photographers whose typical comment is "nice capture!", I think they're all doomed to mediocrity.

Photographers of life need to create order from chaos, to edit out the irrelevant crap and show us why we should care about the things in the photographs. Photographs should ask questions, but not too many as to make the meaning indecipherable. Photography may be democratizing, but the act of photographing requires a kind of ruthlessness: why choose this moment and not some other? What is so special about this 1/250th of a second that I'm supposed to see? A photographer who hasn't thought through these things needs to keep working. A photographer bears a lot of responsibility. We can't screw this up.

I need to see harder than I have been seeing. I have only this lifetime to get it right.

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