Does posing for photos 'kill'?

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Rolf Potts, travel writer and Kansan, wrote an interesting piece on how digital photography has changed travel for him (though I think he crossed a line by posting some very personal candid photos from a brief encounter met on the road). I particularly enjoyed peeking over his shoulder as he rifles through his old travel snapshots and reviews his successes/failures taken with old Instamatic cameras.

Once he traded film for SIM cards, Rolf found he ended up with better photos, particularly of people, even if it took more takes. He writes:
Each shot of a person was, in a sense, a negotiation: An unspoken code compelled us to delete unflattering photos of each other from our memory-cards and retry a given shot until we all looked handsome and happy and at ease. We weren’t photographing our travel experience as it was, but as how it should have been. 
That's a thought to consider a bit. How travel 'should have been.' Sort of like when Calgary used sand, not the abundant Alberta snow, to decorate the 1988 Winter Olympics opening ceremony. They did so because it looked more like snow on TV. The experience at hand is secondary to how people see it back home.

A photo means different things to different people. Locals in the Mayan village of San Juan Chamula, in Chiapas, believe it can take a soul, and regularly get upset when tourists snap photos without permission. When I was there a decade ago using a mini Polaroid camera, I set up a shot of a cathedral filled with pine needles and burping worshipers (I'll explain another time). Just as I took it, a local couple walked into frame. At first they were furious. Then I pulled out the photo, waved it for them to watch as it developed, and offered it as 'un regallo' (a gift). They were pleased. Even if it was a pretty awful shot.

I don't know if a photo swipes souls. But I have a theory that when we pose for a photo, and take a little breath to hold that frozen fake smile, we're a little bit dead. Life is on hold briefly. What a shame that we only have photos of friends and family where we're frozen. It's why I never, or almost never, let friends know I'm photographing them. I just grab candid shots when they are real. Last month I posted a photo of my dad and me at an Oakland taco truck near the Lonely Planet office. It's my favorite of him, even though you can barely see either of our faces, because it's the only photo of us I know of where we aren't posing.

If I don't know a person, I always ask first. But if I know you, watch out. I won't tell you when I'm going to shoot.