Earlier in the semester, my seminar class would partake in looooong circular discussions about ethics in photojournalism. One of our most heated discussions centered around accepting things/giving things to your photographic subjects. As many of my classmates remember, and remind me every so often, I was put on the hot seat when I gave an example in which I was given something by someone I was photographing: a slice of pizza. The assumption was quickly made that I was given this slice of pizza by a male or female that was interested in me for the wrong reasons (this idea has minor sexist undertones, but we don’t need to get into that…). You see, I wasn’t given a slice of pizza by someone who wanted to be more than just friendly, but a fifty year-old woman whom I met while taking pictures around Fulton Mall in Brooklyn, and who I got to know very well in the span of a couple of hours.
Elaine (the evil pizza-giver) approached me while I was sheepishly taking pictures of passer-bys, and asked me if I was a photographer. A friendly conversation ensued, I asked to take her picture (not forgetting why I was at Fulton Mall in the first place), and volunteered to walk with her to her next destination. It just so happened that she was heading to Family Court to get some restraining order papers dealt with. She welcomed the company, and before I knew it, I was getting to know the intimate details of this woman’s life, as I shared a bit about me. And so began a relationship of GIVE and take. As Alessandro had mentioned in his previous post, I truly believe that it is important to give a little of yourself to your subjects in order to achieve depth in your images. Now, there are definitely times to be stoic and distant, don’t get me wrong, but I find the after life of the images that come out from this process less powerful than the ones in which you’ve truly come to understand your subject, their story, and their relation to you. Because what is the point then of being a documentary photographer or photojournalist if not to GET CLOSE TO PEOPLE in both the literal and figurative sense and to understand WHY it is you’re doing so.
Now, of course I’m only speaking for myself, and well, I guess it’s a good a time as any to come to terms with the photographer I am. I am the photographer who takes her subjects seriously. Perhaps too seriously sometimes, but at the end of the day I am the kind of person who just cares, enjoys listening, and is interested in people in both an anthropological and aesthetic way. Elaine insisted on buying me a slice of pizza, no ifs, ands, or buts, as a thank you for keeping her company in court. I accepted because I realized that what was happening was more than an exchange between photographer and subject, but an exchange of kindness between two human beings. And so, I hereby declare that I will never let the photographer overtake the human in me, because we are all both, however dialectically, at the end of the day. The photographer is a taker and voyeur at the most basic level. It is our job to take it to the next level, to add depth, in whatever form we wish (because we’re all different kinds of people).
Oh, and did I mention I love pizza?