Several years ago I spent a wonderful warm July evening with old and new friends in a small town in Saskatchewan. We enjoyed excellent food, fine wine, and great conversations. We talked well into the darkness, then went our separate ways.
I may never have an opportunity to spend another evening with these people. We live far from each other and may never sit down together again. But we’ll try.
I brought two cameras with me to this dinner, hoping that before or after dinner I would have an opportunity to photograph the group or individuals in the group. However, the cameras remained in the car. I felt that this was not an evening for photography: it was an evening in which we discussed our lives, society, the land and our future. Bringing a camera into the circle may have spoiled the discussions.
Portraits and photographs of groups are given, not taken. People who have had cameras pointed at them while they have given presentations or while they are in the midst of conversations are often reluctant to have people invade their privacy. In my travels I have learned that in some societies people do not want anyone – particularly strangers – to photograph them. They feel that the photographer is stealing part of them, and, indeed, that is one of several justifiable reasons for saying ‘Please, no photographs.'
Bringing out a camera at a family or community gathering was once a special ritual. As children we stood patiently while my mother or a visiting aunt framed us in the viewfinder, then clicked the shutter on the box camera. The fixed shutter speeds on these cameras were slow, leaving lots of opportunity for at least one of us to squint because of the sun shining in our eyes, while another looked away at the decisive moment. Most families have numerous family photos in which most people smiled, while others grimaced, during the 1/30 second exposure.
Photography is no longer a special activity for most people. Aunt Sue and Uncle Harry each have a new digital camera and they are pointing them in every direction, clicking, hoping that a few of the scores of digital images will be worth sharing with other relatives. Scattergun photography: open the shutter enough times and a wonderful image will be created and recorded.
Consider using a digital camera as if it were a film camera with 12 or 36 images. Use these images carefully, but don’t look at them until you have exposed all of them. Focus on what’s in front of your camera, not what you got in the last image. Deliberate, slow photography – analogue or digital – creates a different type of image, often more lasting and significant.
Photographs were and continue to be important personal and social documents – and, in many cases, works of art. They deserve all the study, attention and respect that other forms of visual art receive.