I was walking on a beach in northeastern Brazil several years ago, taking a few hours break from an assignment there for the New York Times. I was in the middle of a rough patch in my personal life and the stream of thoughts and imagined conversations was rolling so fast I actually forgot where I was and what I was doing.
I stopped, looked down at the sand, and watched — straining to turn off that stream of words and just see what was below my feet. I was in an amazing place, covering a wonderful story. And I was forgetting to be there and savor it.
When I let my thoughts return, it wasn’t about what was happening in my personal life. I realized that my images — whether personal or professional — were much more successful when I had been truly emotionally and personally present in the scene I was photographing.
We work in a medium that can either engage us with a subject in an intimate way or separate us from our subjects with a big mechanical device to hide behind.
There are several ways we should come out from behind that camera to be present.
That old photojournalism dictum of “250 at f/8 and be there” always applies of course. We do our jobs by getting to the scene above all other considerations.
But if we are mentally present — really seeing the subject — our compositions are better. If you are struggling to understand how Richard Kalvar constructs so many complex layers of action from a single fleeting moment or how Stephen Crowley sees amusing irony around him, then try to stop that inner narrative and just watch every corner of the frame.
We should also be present with our subjects as something of a collaborator.
It’s easy in an emotional scene to hide behind the camera and burst forth with streams of motor-driven frames as the key emotional moments reveal themselves. Those pictures can even be quite impressive. But few would say that this one-sided interaction with a subject is not predatory.
I once watched an intern for a local paper bound up to within inches of a crying subject who had just learned she and her family would not be receiving government aid for health problems resulting from work in a nuclear weapons plant. His pictures certainly conveyed emotion to the paper’s readers. But all the other photographers present wanted to chase him out of the room for wrecking the intimacy we had gently tried to build with the subjects.
No matter how we would like to be flies on a wall, we never are. We are the biggest presence in the room and almost always work with tacit cooperation of subjects. When we have that cooperation and intimacy, our pictures are more true, and the subjects take away with them a sense that we were there to understand them rather than just use them.
We also need to be present to understand ourselves and what we bring to that collaboration. Our mental state matters in how we see a subject, what we understand of that person, place or event, and what about it we relate to our readers.
Though true objectivity is impossible, we gain the trust of our readers by making the best, most valiant attempt to see a subject clearly. And when I leave my own baggage at home, my subjects let me deeper into their lives.
And lastly, we work in an amazing profession that takes us into the homes, offices and lives of fascinating people, to locations most only dream of visiting, and into the rarely seen inner workings of the world. Be present and enjoy it. Put down your camera and absorb where you are or who that person in front of you is.
If you seek in your images the complexity of Cartier-Bresson or Kalvar, the emotional intimacy of Krisanne Johnson or Paolo Pellegrin, the spiritual metaphor of Kathryn Cook or Michael Ackerman, or the joy and humor of Elliot Erwitt, then be there — 250 at f/8 or not.
Remember that you are here, now, and wherever or whatever that place is, you are exceptionally lucky and you may never get back there.
The following is a journal entry I love, from a day at the beginning of my freelance career in which I left the camera at home, stopped to breathe-in the streets of Rio de Janeiro, and just watch. I smiled at the cinematic little ballet happening in front of me, glad for a change to not be distracted by trying to photograph it:
July 14, 1995
I stood at a corner in my neighborhood of Flamengo today, leaning for a moment against one of thousands of one-meter-tall concrete obelisks that line the sidewalks here to prevent space-frustrated drivers from parking their cars in the path of the wretched pedestrians.
I watched people pass.
Around the corner a woman begged, cradling a child on a blanket while her son of perhaps four years skipped among the pedestrians asking for a “trocadinho” — a bit of change.
An ancient woman struggled across Rua Senador Vergueiro on small deformed legs. She planted the cane carefully in front of herself and pried her way across the street with it. Half-way across, the light changed against her, but she held to her lever.
Impatient horns erupted from the line of cars who waited for her to move. The other cars, view blocked, honked at a cabby who defended himself with high-fisted protests. He waved back to the impatient to signal his innocence.
A tall, chivalrous-as-only-a-gentleman-can-be, old man with polar white hair and neat yellow pants rushed out and took her arm. They walked together like they were propping each other. The moment she cleared the cabby’s path by a hair he blasted forward around her.
The chivalrous old man deposited her on the other side of the street, and took the arm of yet another elderly woman. He helped her across the street in the opposite direction and kept going with her. I thought she must be his wife until she yanked herself loose in protest and turned up another direction on the sidewalk with a huff.
The helpful gentleman raised his palms to the air, incredulous at her lack of appreciation for his great knightly aid, and followed her for a moment with his gaze before he disappeared.
The first woman he helped never looked up from her path.
Rounding the corner on the curb to step out onto the perpendicular street, she dragged herself — a small grocery sack on one arm — against the traffic again. The cars waited until they could pass her without killing her, then broke loose like greyhounds.
She changed the hand her cane was in and reached out to the fender of a parked car. Her fingers stretched out for it. The car lingered just out of her grasp.
Her stride stopped completely, and she reached forward slowly — like honey dripping from a spoon. She teetered forward on her toes, and I got ready to catch her and the 2 liter bottle of Sprite hanging in a sack on her left arm.
Four or more people let out their breath when her fingers made contact and she pried her way past the car and onto the curb.
I turned back toward the other street.
A large delivery truck came through the intersection with a blue passenger door open slightly. It moved past me. The passenger hunched out of the door releasing his half-digested lunch to the pavement in heaving foul streams. He looked up between heaves with a pained grey face.
The light changed and two directions of traffic spread the bile in plaid patterns across the pavement.