On Photography: Humans, The Elusive Subjects

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I was taking pictures of things for a long time before I stopped to seriously consider what it was about the process that intrigued me. Then one day while scanning through my back catalogue of decidedly amateurish photographs, I noticed a pattern. There were marked similarities in most of the pictures that I felt succeeded. A sunset, an animal, a tree, those intrigued me. People, on the other hand, did not.

Even outside my own efforts, I realised that most (not all) attempts to in some way capture the “human” fell flat. Initially, I put this down to pure aesthetics. Perhaps the human form held no interest from an artistic perspective? But this was not the case.

In order to get to the bottom of what it was that left me cold regarding the human subject, I had to start with a question. What does photography do? What is its nature as an artistic endeavour? Once again, I thought I knew this. As with all art, the aim of photography is surely the production of something beautiful, provocative, or profound.

While not untrue, I feel this sentiment fails to express something very important. The word “production” invites further analysis. Where a poem, a song, a novel, or a painting is constructed in the imagination, a photograph is necessarily a reflection of something in the world. The artistic materials are pre-existent in a way radically different from other forms of expression.

Photographer in the wild
What is actually going on here?

Where most art “expresses” something about the world, or about life, a photograph “captures”. The photographer stands in relation to his work more as a lens than as a sculptor. I ought to clarify at this stage that this is not intended to in any way diminish photography as a medium. I only wish to draw attention to its unique nature.

Many of its essential aspects are peculiar to it. By no means does this render it any less valuable or illuminating. I consider it, in its purest form, to be perhaps the most direct means of confronting a subject we have at our disposal.

The task of the photographer is primarily one of discrimination. The fullness of being stands before them, and they must seek out a single perspective, a single moment, that provides insight. There is no recourse to abstract form. This is what I see as fundamental in photography. There is no intermediary between the work (the photograph) and the reality which it expresses.

The layer of fiction that most art contains is not present in a photograph. The content can of course be falsified or misrepresented, but this changes nothing. A photograph may contain dishonest or misleading elements, but it still captures a reality. Even if it happens to be a dishonest or misleading one.

This is all very well, but we are moving away from the heart of the matter. What is it about the human subject that so often fails to pique my interest? It’s difficult to put succinctly, but I feel there is a tension between the nature of photography and the nature of a conscious subject. The problem, as I understand it, is that a person knows that they are having their picture taken. This is an issue for several reasons.

To what extent do we disclose our true selves?

The tension is in the photograph as expressing something fundamentally true about its subject, and the layer of artifice introduced by the knowing subject. Think about how it feels to have your photo taken. The instant you become aware of the lens, you modify your posture, your expression, and your behaviour in a thousand subtle ways. Human beings are very particular about which elements of themselves they are willing to express. We want to control what this picture is going to say about us.

I feel that this compromises, or somehow undermines the power of the image. A photograph is raw, immediate, and above all without artifice. A photograph is real in a unique way among the arts. But when the camera is turned upon a human being, all this is removed. Reality is still unavoidably captured, but it expresses nothing worthwhile. In my opinion anyway. All I am able to take from such an image is a sense that the subject is presenting me with some false, ideal self. It feels as though there is something behind this wall of self-consciousness that I can’t reach.

This is why street photography, certain war photography, and such appeal to me more. People who feel free to be themselves make for more interesting subjects. There may be a certain voyeurism in this, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I want something genuine from a photograph. A person’s genuine aspects remain intact only as long as they are unaware of the photographer. On becoming aware, a person ceases to be. Instinct takes over and they adopt a persona they are happy to inhabit and express at that particular moment.

Grief - Dmitri Baltermants
Grief – Dmitri Baltermants

We are often not comfortable expressing our emotions. It can make us feel vulnerable. Understandably, we might not want these moments recorded for posterity. And so, whether or not they know it, most people are wary around cameras. A lot of what we feel only comes to the surface when we forget ourselves and our surroundings. This can and does happen, and has resulted in some of the most beautiful, stirring, and harrowing photographs ever taken. The Napalm Girl, or Dmitri Baltermant’s Grief for instance. But it is rare.

This is why plants, animals, trees, and landscapes have always stood out to me. I am able to form a more intimate connection with them via an image. Perhaps that says more about me than it ever could about photography. Or even about the way I relate to the world around me. I want to end by making clear that I am not claiming that there is nothing of artistic value in people. Far from it. Only that our true selves are frustratingly elusive. A small flame that is all too easily extinguished.

Robert Webb

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