The Photo Vulture: Guest Post by Crystal Street
We’ve all seen the vulture. It lurks in the shadows, poised to pounce once the cliche is in motion. The beggar tugging at your skirt for some rupees, the angry man at a large protest, the children playing soccer in bare feet in the town square. The vulture waits for the perfect moment to strike, the moment we’ve all seen a thousand times over. The image we all envision when talks of exotic travel takes us to the developing world and stokes our altruistic tendencies. As the elements of time slow down and the moment appears, the vulture swoops in, flashes his camera and flies away with the cliched image he hunted down and took without a second thought to its ramifications.
He’s the “Photo Vulture”. And I know him well, I’ve seen him often while traveling throughout the world. And at times, I’ve been the vulture myself.
As a documentary photographer, I wrestle with the need to address a social issue through a single image that encapsulates my interpretation of a social injustice. How do I capture the image of conflict and avoid the expected photograph of a war-torn community? How do I address the very real issue of poverty in a rural Nepalese village without creating the anticipated image of children scouring the streets for food or the reality of child labor as a means of survival? These are real issues and they need to be addressed.
But how do you photograph the situation and not feel as though you just landed on the side of the road to gnaw at their plight with your “vulturistic” longings of extracting an image from their reality only fly back home to your privileged nest and relish in the image you captured.
“Even when photographers are most concerned with mirroring reality, they are still haunted by tacit imperatives of taste and conscience. The immensely gifted members of the Farm Security Administration photographic project of the late 1930s (among them Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Ben Shahn, Russell Lee) would take dozens of frontal pictures of one of their sharecropper subjects until satisfied that they had gotten just the right look on film — the precise expression on the subject’s face that supported their own notions about poverty, light, dignity, texture, exploitation, and geometry. In deciding how a picture should look, in preferring one exposure to another, photographers are always imposing standards on their subjects.” Susan Sontag from On Photography.
While we, as photographers and travelers, like to think we are merely objective observers, the mere action of taking the image implies that we have chosen to compose the photograph a certain way to impose our perception of the issue being documented. And there are times, no matter what your travel intentions may be, that we stumble upon a moment that we feel should be documented and shared with those who can not be present to witness the reality before us.
So, all photographic philosophy aside, how can you avoid that “vulturistic” tendency when traveling through the world and sharing your experience with others by publishing your travel images online or in print?
Avoiding the Bird of Prey
1. Make contact with the person prior to taking their image. One of the beautiful elements of travel is the true human exchange that happens when you share a physical space with a person from another culture. The feelings of curiosity are most definitely mutual. If you’re in a chai-wallah, sipping on that yummy Indian tea goodness, and you are just foaming at the mouth to photograph the gifted soul that made your chai, give them a large smile and thank them for their tea. Say a few words in their native language- laugh with them when they mock your butchering of their words and share a few moments. If there is a shared moment that’s genuine, hold your camera up and gesture that you want to take their picture. Focus on their actions- the making of the tea- first. Photographing their actions will let them know you really are interested in what they do. If they do not flinch or try to hide their face, include them in the image as well. Ask someone to take a picture of the both of you. If you’re in the village for a few days, take copy of the image back to the chai-wallah. It’s quite possible that they posses very few images of themselves- and your shared moment will live in their family for generations.
2. Always keep your camera out when walking through a village if you are looking for subjects to photograph. Obviously, this might not be a good idea if the possibility of crime is high, but keeping your camera out and handling it in a professional manner let’s people know from the start that you are a photographer or that you have photographic intentions. If they are uncomfortable with your camera, they will not approach you. And, for the love of god- RESPECT THAT! You will know when someone is uncomfortable with your camera and you must not intrude on their space and take the image.
3. Do not take photographs of beggars asking for money unless you are prepared to pay them. If this is the case, what’s the point of taking the photo in the first place? You’ve captured a contrived image that does not reflect reality- you altered the moment when you engaged in the action with the subject. If a particular person catches your attention and you want to photograph them, and they are begging on the street, sit next to them. Sit with them for a while, bring out a packet of snacks (always keep snacks on you for this reason) and share some food with them. Use the same approach as step one and slowly start to take pictures after you’ve established your intentions. This may take a while. But, over time, you will create an image that truly reflects this person’s reality.
4. When kids see your camera and sing, “miss, miss, take my picture!” Oblige them- with one photo, maybe two. Even if you are in a bad mood- take the photo. Take a moment, laugh with the kids, have them make some funny poses and take a couple pics. Don’t take too many and be careful not to open Pandora’s box to looking at the back of the camera- that’s an endless cycle of kids posing and tugging at you to show them the back. Also opens you up for a little pick-pocketing. Hey, if you were hungry and a rich tourist is in front of you snapping photos, getting a little dinner money isn’t an unexpected occurrence. Might not end well. And later that day or week, when you see one of the kids from that image, gesture to your camera and ask to follow them for a bit and take some real shots of their life. This may take a little game of charades- and they will probably perform a little for the camera- what 7 year old doesn’t want to feel like a rock star? But you never know, the parents may invite you in for dinner and you’ll have the opportunity to share a real evening with a family of another culture. And get some fabulous photos!
5. When you see an image you must take, be sure you won’t hurt the person in the process. There will come a time when you stumble across a situation where pain and anger are boiling at the surface and you will be present with a camera. There’s a fine line between documenting a moment and provoking the event. Be sure your presence is acknowledged and so is your camera. When a social injustice occurs, your camera gives the subject a voice. Take that position seriously. Make the best image you know how and act with respect. Move quietly throughout the situation and be in tune with the mood of the subject. Be a fly on the wall and document when the moment is right. I was once working on a long-term project on inner city crime and poverty and was working with the police department on a domestic call. I was inside the home of a young mother, in the housing projects, getting evicted for her boyfriend’s drug use in the home. Her young children were playing in the den and we were all in her kitchen as she learned she would be homeless tomorrow. This image was the actual visual summary of my project. It had all the elements I needed, all the emotion to convey the issue and the setting of poverty, guns on the table and the weeping woman whose life was falling apart. Yet, I knew if I took that image, she would understand the second my shutter fired what had just happened and I would have then altered the situation and taken this woman’s misery out into the public arena. And I sat there, with my finger on the shutter button, half pressed while the “photo vulture” screamed in my ear to take the shot. In the end, I beat the vulture. I just couldn’t. The project went on to win several national awards, but I still think of that image, the one I didn’t take, and it’s still embedded in my mind- three years later. Fighting the vulture isn’t easy sometimes, but you’ll sleep better at night knowing you didn’t completely feast of of someone’s pain by taking an image.
Use Your Brain & A Little Compassion
The real point to this article is to act like a person when you’re traveling about the world with your camera. Put yourself in the shoes of the person you wish to photograph and ask yourself, “would I want my picture taken at this moment”? If you feel uncomfortable taking the image, the odds are pretty high that the person before you feels the same unease. Don’t take the picture.
Regardless of the type of camera you use or the situations you document, photography is an aggressive action. You “take” a photograph, or “capture” an image or “shoot” a subject. Photography is aggressive and you are taking something from the person before you. Never take that action lightly and always be conscious of the camera and your presence in the situation.
And if you are thinking of entering the photography world as a professional, begin to lay down your boundaries for the situations you document. Understand what you are comfortable photographing and know when you are about to cross your line. As a professional photojournalist, you will have a set of ethical guidelines instilled by your professors, editors and colleagues. You will also have to push those boundaries of comfort in order to obtain the proper image of a situation. Having your boundaries will help, but you are paid to push those boundaries and certain situations are unavoidable. You will be the vulture. And there’s nothing you can really do about it. Other then quit your job or make peace with it.
Watch, observe and interact. Incorporate these three actions in your travels and be aware of the vultures. They often lurk in small packs, so be sure you aren’t joining them. Know when your camera is an extension of your personality and when it becomes the tool to feed on another person’s misery and you can avoid becoming the “photo vulture.”
Crystal publishes a blog about storytelling, living simple, entrepreneurship and travel at Storytelling from an Independent Traveler. She is a documentary photographer, multimedia producer and writer and you can find her on Twitter or learn more about her work here.
I wear many artistic hats, but my professional wardrobe looks something like this; I’m a professional documentary photographer, a multimedia producer, a writer and a traveler. I began shooting at age 10, when I proclaimed my desires to be a photographer. I studied fine art photography in college, worked as a staff photographer at a small, rural newspaper in Virginia in my early 20s and fell in love with photojournalism. I began freelancing, among other jobs, in 1998 and returned to academics in 2005 to study photojournalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s School of Journalism and Mass Communications. I’ve traveled the world on grants and fellowships documenting issues surrounding cultural preservation of displaced populations and have worked in Nepal, India, Palestine, Egypt, Jordan and Indonesia. I now produce commercial multimedia projects to fund my documentary work and my past clients include Nissan North America, Oregon Public Broadcasting, UNC, Special Olympics and many others.
This winter, I embarked on a “Walkabout” and began publishing my stories on my blog, Storytelling from an Independent Traveler. I’ve always led an unconventional life and now I have a platform to share the stories with fellow travelers and curious souls. I am a location independent professional and write about entrepreneurship, travel, simple living and storytelling. I hope to start a small movement of folks following their own independent paths and shedding the barriers placed by society that promote conformity, drudgery and sheer boredom. Life’s too damn short for that crap! Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with questions, comments or just to say hello!