Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Photographs stealing souls

Mark Hobson posed a question which got me thinking while I was out walking today:

I have started to wonder about those picture makers who picture the landscape - nature, urban, or otherwise. What I have noticed about them is that they rarely make pictures with people in them. Humankind, in the guise of actual people, are remarkably absent. [...] Is it because, as a group, landscape picture makers are uneasy in dealing, lens-to-face, with other people - especially so, in highly charged emotional situations? Or is it simply because they do not wish to "intrude" in those situations?

I have wondered about this myself, without being any wiser. But as I started to think about this, I really got into it, in a rambling way which well suits a long walk outside at night.

And when I started writing these thoughts out, it turned into a dialogue. Here "I" means I, and "O" means other. But of course "O" is me also. (I hope this makes sense, or maybe you think that I suffer from a split personality.)

In any case, the following is a story: not real, fiction. Some parts may have osculating contacts with reality, but it is best to think all of this as fabrication to be on the safe side.

O: So, why don't you take photographs of people?

I: Well, I do, of the family members. In fact, my best photographs are of the family, and here I'm trying to be as objective as I can, and still I claim that this is so, even if the viewer would be someone not knowing who it is in the photograph.

O: Well, why don't you show these photographs publicly?

I: I don't want to, and why would I?

O: I think you are avoiding the subject. Why not take photographs of people you meet?

I: I do that, occasionally, but I avoid posting this kind of photographs, and in fact I usually delete all such photographs if they are not family-related.

O: It is because they are not good?

I: No, it isn't that, it is just that I really don't like to publicly show photographs of people, and that applies especially to the net, where the photographs are easy to use for purposes which are beyound my control.

O: Well, why would that be so bad?

I: I dislike very much certain uses of photographs with people in them, especially the way photographs of people are used in marketing.

O: Why would it be so bad?

I: It misuses the trust we have in people, and makes as want things which we don't really need, and promises us things which are not real, and in fact can harm us by making us behave in ways that are not good for us as human beings.

O: But is that really a reason to avoid photographing people?

I: For me this is something which I have strong feelings about. In fact, we don't subscribe to any newspapers at home, mainly because of the amount of advertisements they have. And all too many of these ads use people, objectifying them, making the sell, sell, sell.

O: But selling, isn't that the way the world works?

I: Maybe it is, but I don't like selling.

O: Not everyone can make a sale.

I: Well, years ago I realized that I'm rather good in selling, at least when dealing with certain kinds of things that I know well. And this was frightening.

O: Surely you don't mean it!

I: Yes, frightening. You see, when you sell something to someone, you are then responsible for the thing you sold. And that responsibility can be a heavy thing.

O: I think we are getting lost somewhere, far away from the original topic.

I: Shut up and let me continue. (But you can add occasional comments.) Sometimes I wonder how salesmen can sleep at all, with all the responsibility they carry.

O: I would think they sleep very well!

I: Well, maybe they don't care. Or then they have multiple personalities. But anyway, when I realized how easy it was to sell things, I started to observe people who were trying to sell their stuff to others. And I often wonder whether they realize the burden they are taking on in case they succeed in their attempt.

O: But it isn't really like that at all, selling is another thing, delivering is another.

I: Maybe it is so to you, but not to me. And even though I'm not a mystic, I sometimes ponder whether there could exist a karma law, connecting all the things sold to those people who have sold them.

O: But come on, I know you have been in management positions which involve selling things to customers.

I: Well, maybe someone would have seen it so, but my approach has been not of selling, but of serving. Or maybe you could say "non-selling". And in fact I suspect that there is some kind of law here as well, maybe something like in Tao Te Ching, which says that there is a natural way of things to happen, and if you don't force things in an unnatural way, a suitable solution will appear. And this approach often works in surprising ways.

O: Surely you are telling tales now.

I: Not really. In fact, I recently went to a shop and bought two pairs of cross-country skis from a guy who wasn't selling.

O: If he wasn't selling, what was he doing?

I: He was helping us. He knew things about skis, like the good and bad of nanogrip coating, or applying grip tape, or finding the perfect fit of the skis for the children, or the best shoes for the skis, and so on. And he never pushed or hurried, giving as plenty of space when we needed it. And I think this guy who wasn't selling was the best salesman in the shop. And he probably also sleeps well.

O: But what is the connection to photography?

I: I loathe the extreme ways of how photographs are used for selling. Any photograph you publish on the web can be used for such purposes, which destroys for me any interest in publishing photographs of people.

O: Sure you are not that extreme about it.

I: Yes I am. I try to eliminate all ads, for example by using ad-blocking software on the browser. And in fact I intensely dislike how my current work computer doesn't have decent ad-blocking software built-in, showing all kinds of intrusive ads, often with photographs of people in them, for example when checking out a recent news item, trying to sell me stuff which I don't want to know anything about.

O: But is it really an explanation for why you don't take photographs of people?

I: For me it is. Family members are another thing, as those photographs are something to cherish. But photographs of unknown people, what would I do with them? If I would publish them on the net it would be like stealing the souls of people, given how photographs are abused. And that is not fair.

O: I still think you are not frank here. I think you may have trouble approaching and dealing with people.

I: Well, maybe you should ask people who know me. And maybe here is a Dilbertesque explanation for why I have been working in management for so many years...


Markus Spring said...

Juha, you certainly have qualities as a storyteller. There is not much I could object after having followed your reasoning.

I, too, am glad that I don't have to sell, and in a similar way I don't want to fuel that kind of industry, Also I take the idea of privacy seriously, especially the protection from abuse of all that belongs in this sphere, being it data about behaviour or - images.

Oh yes, and I wholeheartedly agree to your injection about ad blockers - same disaster here in the office, where I would have it blocked for everybody for mere economical reasons - just imagine the amount of time wasted only for clicking away those ads popping up.

Eric Jeschke said...

An interesting self-analysis!

It seems there are some real differences when it comes to privacy expectations of photography in different countries. One could generalize about europeans being more private, but then we would have to account for the fact that Britain has more surveillance cameras per capita than any other country, or that France is almost the birthplace of street photography with cartier bresson, etc.

Are there paparazzi in Finland? Is it allowed? It is distasteful, of course, but I am wondering about the legality of street photography there.

Juha Haataja said...

@Markus: Indeed, it is funny that ad-blocking is not done properly at the office, given how much distraction it causes.

@Eric: Remember, that was fiction. ;-)

In Finland we are nowhere close to Britain in terms of paparazzi (or surveillance cameras). But this is changing, as there are now newspapers and magazines which thrive through paparazzi photographs. But what I especially dislike is the way ordinary newspapers are starting to go the same way.