carolyn o’neill

In a Good Light – by Sabrina Henry

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One of the reasons I like being behind the camera is because I prefer not to be in front it. For a host of reasons, I am not comfortable being photographed and my friends will tell you that I seldom let them make a picture of me and if they do, it needs my approval before sharing. Maybe it is because I have my own hang-ups about being photographed that I am sensitive as to how I portray others in my pictures even to the point of not making a photograph. Of course one can always decide not to share a picture after it has been made but for me, often the decision comes at the moment of creation.

Here are a few of the kinds of situations I will not photograph.

Photographing when expressly asked not to make a picture
The streets of Bangkok are a wonderful place to photograph because many people do not mind if you take a picture of them. They often engage in a conversation and share a bit about themselves and you get some context for your photograph. That’s why it came as a surprise to me one day when I raised the camera to my eye and started to make a picture of a woman cooking on the street and she told me: “No pictures!” It took me a few minutes to get over the incident because it was so unexpected and after that I wondered how it must be for her to be photographed day in and day out by all the tourists and others who venture out to make pictures. She had been slaving over a flaming hot grill in the heat of the day and I am sure she did not feel beautiful at all. My BPS colleague Carolyn O’Neill shared her own experience with me: “A lot of things in general here in SE Asia happen out in public and it’s a very known factor that there are many camera-wielding tourists about taking a bunch of random photos. This is probably one of the easiest street photography places I’ve ever lived in, so I’ve become rather spoiled. Thais don’t seemed too fussed about it in general, but as soon as someone waves me off, I totally respect their wishes and thank them for letting me know.” The bottom line for us both is if someone has asked not to be photographed, we honour that request.

Photographing people eating
Hot dog eating contests aside, I also do not photograph people eating. It doesn’t matter how many pictures I make, I have not found any elegant way to photograph people putting food in their mouths. Photojournalist Jack Kurtz, who teaches private workshops at BPS, agrees in general: “I won’t photograph people putting food into their mouths, it’s hard to make that look dignified, but if I’m working on a story about a meal (like iftar, the meal that breaks the Ramadan fast) I will make a picture of a person eating.

Photographing people sleeping
Many years ago I made a snapshot of a woman sleeping on a train in Japan. It is a common sight not just on trains but also at stations and in other public places. The picture also included her son who was awake and laughing at his mother being photographed asleep. The picture has always made me a little uncomfortable because it feels sneaky and appears to make a mockery of the woman. Since then I’ve avoided photographing people sleeping and I’ve never found a reason to make that kind of picture for any story. Of course it depends on the photographer’s intention. Jack Kurtz explains his approach in this way: “Because of my background in newspapers, where we photograph everything and then sort it out in the editing process, I don’t really have a hard and fast rule about what I will or won’t photo. I try not to photograph people in a way that belittles or embarrasses them.” For me, that is the key. You can still document what is happening around you or make pictures that are part of a story without photographing people in a bad light.

What’s off limits for you? Is there anything you wouldn’t photograph?