What do you think about when you take a photograph of a stranger? This dilemma started for me a few years ago in Indonesia, when I was trying to take photographs of local villagers for my fieldwork research. I would see them clustered around a well, washing clothes, carrying firewood or sitting in a group, talking and smoking. But whenever I tried to photograph these scenes the villagers would jump up in a combination of alarm and excitement, insisting on changing their clothes and standing in a formal group pose. Unsurprisingly, I became frustrated with this! The 'natural' scenes I had envisaged, capturing villagers in their everyday lives, were being thwarted. Instead, I had roll upon roll of stiff family groupings.
Looking at these photos got me thinking, about how photographing a person is a two-way exchange between the photographer and the person being photographed. We like to think we can hide when we take photographs of strangers, so that the photographs are just images that we have already seen with our eyes. But the reality of the situation is that by introducing the camera into the environment, we are changing our relationship to the people around us.
So, how to get around the dilemma? One of my favourite photography sites solves the problem it by embracing the exchange with the subject, by talking to the person in the photograph and including part of the dialogue with the photo. The site is called Humans of New York, and sometimes I can't decide what is more compelling - the photograph or the story that goes along with it. Well, they are both pretty good!
From HONY: "I'm from the Ivory Coast."
"Why'd you come to America?"
He formed his hands into two imaginary guns. "Too much boom boom," he said. "So I run."