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Friday, December 6, 2013

The Photographer is Present

Photojournalism usually asks that we allow the polite fiction that the camera is not present. In this modern era, however, we're less and less willing to accept that polite fiction. Everyone has a camera now, and a surprisingly large number of news photographs are made by "citizen journalists" (i.e. free pictures, from the point of view of the business packaging news for our consumption).

The fact is that the camera has always been there. Ethical standards for photojournalists suggest strongly that the journalist maintain separatation, not taking part in the news, merely recording it as it unfolds. This has always been nonsense, of course. News-makers have always mugged for the camera, performed for the camera, run from the camera. Only with quite a bit of luck and skill has the photojournalist been able to approach the standard of non-involvement. More often, they have been able to create the illusion of non-involvement.

When amateurs get involved it gets worse. They ape the standard, but nobody is even attempting to hold them to it.

I saw recently a series documenting the day of a homeless man, in a photojournalistic style (read: black and white). The series closes with a closeup shot of the subject's face as he tries to sleep, shivering with the cold.

The presence of the camera and the photographer is overwhelming here. We're much too close to believe the fiction of non-involvement. Are we to believe that the photographer is a monster, watching a man freeze from a couple of feet away, and doing nothing? Contrariwise, are we to believe that the scene is staged? Or that the photographer allowed the man to freeze, but only for a little while, and is therefore only an exploiter, not a monster?

What's going on here? The camera implies a photographer. The photographer is present, that is the essence and power of photography.

The photographer is present.

And yet, all too frequently, we are asked to take part in the fiction that the photographer is not, or at any rate might as well not be.

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