I just recently finished reading a short book of essays on photography called Photographs Not Taken, edited by Will Steacy. The essays in this book are written by numerous photographers, including Mary Ellen Mark, Zweelethu Mththwa, Todd Hido, Alec Soth, Elinor Carucci, Laurel Nakadate, and many, many more (there are 60 some essays). In each essay, a photographer addresses the idea of a photograph, that somewhere in their past they didn’t take for some reason, or they wish they would have been able to make, and their feelings about what Lyle Rexer refers to in the introduction as “pictures without photographs”. This is a book that’s been on my reading list for awhile, but I finally broke down and downloaded it to my Kindle last week because I started thinking about how photography, and more specifically film, is a failure, and what implications my avoidance of it has had on my work.
As a teenager, I always carried a camera with me, and photographed everything (and I do mean everything) around me. However, at some unknown point, this started tapering off, until it completely stopped. And then I stopped taking photographs all together. Photography, for me, became frustrating and disappointing, because what I caught on film never seemed to reflect the essence of what I saw through my lens, so I simply stopped trying. I never really considered the idea that I was missing photographs, that these unmade images might haunt me, or even that photographs could be disappointments (as opposed to me just failing), but this book has made me reconsider my abandonment of image making. Additionally, many things that the photographers write about in their essays also echo some of the things I’d been thinking about after reading Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others. This collection covers a number of themes, too many to discuss in great depth here, but below I’ve shared a few that stuck with me.
The introductory essay, The Art of Missing Information, tries to locate this idea of the untaken image in the realm of contemporary art, placing it among a “history of voids, negations, refusals, anti-art strategies, and marketing sleights of hand”. I am not certain that this is where these essays belong. After reading the entire book, it seems to me that these essays are more about a moment of privacy, a moral choice, a decision to remain in the moment and not exclude yourself, or simply an emotional moment which cannot be captured by the lens, nor contained by a photograph. Instead, I might place these “pictures without photographs” in the realm of story telling. The images written about cannot be seen or visually experienced, unless you are the one to experience them. Instead they act as short stories, allowing the listener or reader to compose the scene in their own mind, but without have had the immediate experience, resulting in a purely aesthetic recreation. Later in the introduction however, Rexer goes on to state that the experience of having missed a photograph, for whatever reason provides an impetus for the image maker to continue in their work: “That gnawing lack is precisely what drives photographers to seek more pictures and regret lost opportunities– and poets to write more poems.” I think that this is true. To capture what you see, what you feel, or what you are experiencing, and to find yourself with an image that truly reflects that is powerful, and ultimately the goal for photographers. If you disappoint yourself at that goal, then you must continue to attempt to prove yourself in the future. So this collection of essays could also be viewed as a meditation on what it means to be a photographer and the implications of creating images; the choices, the sacrifices, and the experiences that create, or prevent images.
I think that photographers exist in a difficult place sometimes. On the one hand, they love to make images and do so for a career, but on the other, they are often expected to become image makers and record keepers for life in general. Sometimes this is accepted, but sometimes this becomes a problem for the photographer. Do you choose to experience things through your camera, or do you desire to remain fully present and active in the moment? Many photographers who have written essays for this book talk about this choice, to photograph, or not to photograph, in the context of their personal life. In Elinor Carruci’s essay, she sums the feeling up, saying: “Every moment I had to choose between photographing and mothering, and when I did choose photography, every photograph became a second of guilt, a second I neglected them [her twins Eden and Emmanuelle], a second I thought about light, composition, exposure and not about them.” She beautifully describes the lost images as being “stored in my eyes” but as making her the photographer she is, which is ‘torn’.” Other photographers, like Jim Goldberg, admit to using their cameras to mediate a overwhelming moment: “Immediately when that long-ass needle went into her spine is when I reached for a camera to shield myself from fear”, realizing only after the fact that their choice to not photograph at that moment could keep them from missing something incredible. The decision to photograph or not is also present in less private situations. In his essay, Joshua Lutz discusses his inability to create images on the morning of 9/11, finally concluding: “It’s not that I don’t want to have a photograph of the moment; its more that I would rather be living in the moment than worrying about capturing it.” Photographer Simon Roberts struggled not so much with wanting to be present, but the idea that a moment should not be dissected through the lens, rather lived, concluding his essay about his missed photograph (One of an AIDS victim, a young girl raped by her uncle, at a clinic in Zimbabwe)by writing: “No image, however accomplished, could have captured the agonizing poignancy of that moment. It was a moment to be lived, not framed, analyzed, or reduced in anyway.” Each in its own way, these essays get to the heart of the fact, once you raise the camera to your eye, you cease to be a part of the moment, you are experiencing it through the lens. You make yourself an outsider of sorts and cease to live in the moment. In a way, this is relatable to the current debate over Instagram, where it becomes a question of experiencing and being fully present, versus photographing. As Nadav Kander states in his essay “…sometimes you just get an instinct when to put the camera down and be fully present.” Personally speaking, I think this is what I find most difficult about photography, you can never fully experience the moment you so intensely want to capture and share. For me, there is so much to be had in the experience surrounding the image, and that is lost to the photographer because they are much more focused on the composition, exposure, lighting, etc… This is where I get frustrated. I want to share the experience and allow my viewer to feel something, but I don’t believe that an image does this.
The other theme prevalent throughout Photographs Not Taken, which ties so well into much of what Susan Sontag gets at in Regarding the Pain of Others, is the moral choice photographers often have to make regarding image capture. Particularly when it comes to the genre of documentary photography, photographers are faced with witnessing many things that they may or may not feel they have the right or even stomach to capture. In her essay, Misty Keasler tells the story of her experience living in Transylvania and visiting a ghetto of gypsy families. In general, she says that conditions were bad, dark, crammed, no running water… But then one of the men came out of a room: “He started yelling at me to take pictures, that he would show me how terrible life was for the people living in the building, how sad and tough things were for them…He proceeded to lift both girls [his daughters] by their shirts and slam them into the concrete wall in front of us.” Despite the man’s behavior, her horror and anger at the situation, and the potential good she could have done, Keasler chooses not to make the images, saying that she would never be able to reconcile the fact that she had documented violence, and that it was violence which had been created specifically for her. How can one justify the creation of such an image, much less sharing that image with others, which in some ways makes the behavior therein acceptable, no matter how much we denounce it. Another example of this awareness of responsibility is present in Peter Van Agtmael’s essay about his first trip to Iraq in 2006. He tells the story of being on patrol and witnessing an army chaplain peeing on the grave of an Iraqi child, and only being able to gawk in that moment. He is unsure of why he couldn’t photograph the scene, only later recognizing that his failure to make the image lay in his feelings about the American presence in Iraq: “..a stark realization of the odious nature of the American enterprise…and the insight that even its spiritual leadership was not immune to its dehumanizing effects.” As we talked about with Sontag’s book, sometimes certain things should not be shared, nor do we have the right to unload them onto others. We should always be aware of the power of the images we capture (or choose not to capture), and understand how they could affect others.
As photographers, one of the most fundamental decisions we make–perhaps the most fundamental decisions we make– is when to actually ‘take’ what is before us and transform in into a photograph. By engaging in this calculated act of apprehension, we bestow certain moments, whether they are decisive or not, with value, importance, permanence, relevance, meaning, and a rather cryptic sense of significance. Ostensibly, one could conclude that this implies that all of the other moments, which are allowed to pas by untouched, have ben judged as not particularly important or sigificant, or at least not important or significant enought. Yet, as in the case of the instances listed above (and many more), sometimes we find ourseives faced with the opposite: a moment that is ‘too’ something– too dangerous, too intimate, too immediate, too complex, too intense, too terrifying, too fleeting, too painful, too private, too invasive, too emarrassing, too exciting, too schmaltzy, too cliched, too ecstatic, too imagined, or simply too impossible– to ‘take’.