Photography, like most other artistic activities, was once only practiced by the elite. To do something solely for the purpose of creating, one needed to invest not only time but money; two things that the working class had precious little of to spare. This changed slightly with the invention of roll film and handheld cameras but not drastically. It wasn’t until the medium became mechanized, and the average Joe could take their exposed film to someone to get it developed and printed by a machine in one hour, that photography became a hobby of the masses. Then digital cameras were invented and photography became even easier for people to play with. As the years and technology advanced cameras got smaller, cheaper and eventually have been incorporated into every phone, device and electronic gadget out there. Photography has evolved from a purely artistic endeavour, to a profession, to a hobby, to an everyday/everybody activity.
I mention this because yesterday, as we motored down the Diamond Narrows inside the Vona Vona Lagoon we passed by a well-kept house with a sprawling front yard that fronted the water. In the garden was the large Solomon Island family that lived there; the adults sitting in the shade of a big tree and the kids playing on a rope swing that swung out over the water. As the name implies the waterway we were navigating wasn’t particularly wide so we were virtually in their front yard. As usual when we pass other boats or people onshore we smiled and waved and said “Halo!” We were greeted by wide smiles and enthusiastic waves . I wanted to take a photo as their property was well kept and their house brightly painted, in fact I had my camera in my hand, but now that they were all looking in our direction it felt intrusive.
And then I noticed that where one man’s face should have been there was a shiny white rectangle. A pose that is all too familiar these days. The man was holding up his phone and taking a picture.
This isn’t the first time this has happened, we’ve also recently gotten some flyby’s from local boats, the passengers all holding up a phone or a tablet and snapping a pic as they sped past. In fact everywhere we’ve been in the last few years almost everyone has a mobile phone, most of which are equipped with a digital camera. Even in small, remote villages, where there is no cell tower, people often have phones that they use to play music files…and take pictures.
So I took the opportunity, raised my camera, took a photograph of their house, and hoped we weren’t so far away that the opposing photographer would be just a fuzzy little dot. Alas.
But the moment stuck with me.
I have never been keen at shoving my camera in people’s faces, especially if I don’t know them. We’ve had some great faces paddle out to the boat to trade with us, but I have yet to take someone’s photo. I know they would say yes if I asked them, they would say yes even if they were not comfortable with the idea because most islanders dislike confrontation. Besides, how would you like it if you knocked on a stranger’s door and within two minutes they had a camera pointed at you?
It is only in crowds that I have ever felt enough courage to candidly capture portraits; somehow the chaos feels like a protective cloak, or at least enough of a distraction that I can ignore my moral insecurities. But even then I rarely press the shutter release when the subject is acknowledging the camera.
But now the playing field is leveled. I can no longer hide behind my camera, both figuratively and literally since most cameras no longer require you to actually look through a viewfinder. I have become both the photographer and the photographed, the objectify-er and the objectified. We are as exotic to them as they are to us, as it has always been, except now they can capture us too.
Now that we have been photographed we are, as Susan Sontag once wrote, “a privileged moment, turned into a slim object, that one can keep and look at again”, well a digital file to be looked at again, anyway.
And I am not sure how I feel about that. Which is perhaps why, I have recently found myself saying that not everything in life has to be photographed. That sometimes it is more fulfilling to experience something without the distraction of trying to capture it on “film.”
Or maybe that’s just the photographer hiding behind the camera once again.