Wednesday, February 15, 2012

People Pictures

As I mentioned in an earlier post, Andreas Manessinger added a very touching comment to my post on Janet’s passing. He was in a discussion basically about taking people pictures or more specifically taking emotionally charged photographs  which in the majority of situations translates to photograph of people. We can love and appreciate nature, fellow creatures and many other photographic genres but nothing has the emotional connection of another human being. As a result I have been browsing through his blog and following the many links. What I read is to someone my age frightening or at least concerning.

Andreas, Juha Haataja and a number of others are commenting on their own reactions, desires, interest in people photography, or lack thereof, as well as the attitudes of the general masses about having their photograph taken. I am assuming that most of the photographers engaged in the discussion range in age from possibly the early twenties maybe up through the thirties. Now I remember being that age—believe it or not since I can’t remember to eat breakfast. I remember all the apprehension involved in taking photographs especially of strangers. I actually had apprehension about taking photographs of friends and family. So I understand where the conversation is coming from and maybe the difference in our attitudes has more to do with age than anything else. But there seems to be a more ominous underlying theme to what they are writing.

It is not their individual reluctance of lack of desire to photograph people that is so concerning. The scary part of the conversations is a barely hidden theme of a society being emotionally disconnected from our fellow man or a lack of willingness to suffer the hassle needed to make an emotional connection. It almost seems that as a social group we are afraid of each other as well as being terrified of offending another person. The consideration that taking people pictures can be a win/win situation for both the photographer and the subject seems to have been lost. I understand that. As the photographer they seem to feel that of the two, themselves and the subject, that only they are going to benefit. Hattersley, who has been a large influence on my photography, suggests that the photographer shows respect, love, consideration, interest when he photographs others.

Ralph Hattersley Jr. wrote an article in the Popular Photography Annual in, I believe, 1967 that listed the rewards for both the photographer and the subject. I use to go to Hattersley's chart frequently trying to drum it into my head. Hattersley goes through a list of rewards for the photographer and directly across he listed the corresponding reward for the subject. Since I can’t post a chart I will use P for the Photographer and S for the person being photographed.

“Surprising as it may seem, the picture snapper has a great deal to offer, whether or not his picture comes out well. In fact, for every satisfaction he himself derives there is a parallel one for his subject (that is if the photographer informs his model of what he is trying to accomplish). These satisfactions can be paired somewhat as follows:

P: Attempting to understand another person.
S: Knowing that someone cares enough about him to try to understand.

P: Keeping a person alive in his memory by means of a photograph.
S: Knowing that someone finds him interesting enough, or cares enough, to cherish his memory.

P: Communicating to the world what he has discovered of value in a specific individual.
S: Knowing that a person who is concerned with the problems of value has found something of value in him.

P: Recording the visible aspects, or signs, of how a person evaluates or judges himself.
S: Knowing that someone is acceptant enough of his self-evaluation, and interested enough, to want to record it for himself.

P: Capturing the beauty of another person.
S: Knowing that someone finds beauty in him.

P: Capturing an interesting moment in another person’s life.
S: Knowing that another person shares his opinion as to what is interesting, being able to share joy and experiences, feeling pride in being a person whose activities are of interest to others.

P: Trying to strengthen a friendship or love by trying to see the other person better.
S: Strengthening a friendship or love by trying to allow himself to be seen clearly.

P: Making a general statement on the general meaning of human existence by interpreting a specific individual.
S: Apprehending that his own small existence can cast at least a little light on the cosmos as a whole.

If the photographer wishes to be at all comfortable while making people pictures he should do everything possible to clarify to his subjects the meaning of both sides of the contract. When it remains an unspoken contract, there are often great misunderstanding. Once clarified it creates a warm area of mutual appreciation in which photographer and subject can work toward a common goal, man understanding man.”
If I may briefly expand on what I understand Hattersley to be saying is that the benefit to both is in making that emotional connection—two people making that emotional connection. If we lose our ability to do that then we are in a very scary situation.

[This article, The Psychology of People Pictures is also published in Hattersley's book Discover Your SELF Through Photography, Association Press, 1971]

ADDENDUM: In the light of a new day I have rewritten parts of the third and forth paragraphs. I was talking about society in general and it seemed that I was talking about the individuals mentioned. I did not originally make that clear.


  1. This was a really interesting comparison of the two viewpoints.

    And what is rather original (at least to me) is the idea that the quality of the resulting photograph doesn't matter at all, it is the act of taking photographs (and making contact) which is the key.

  2. As photographers it is much too easy to become entranced with the technique of photography to the expense of content--especially if you belong to a camera club and I belong to several. I am very disappointed with my photography at the present because it has become much to literal. I think it may be the result of age but I really miss the stretching I seemed to do in the past.