The unrelaxed photographer (on taking pictures on the street)

· 925 words · 5 minute read

It was nice to be given permission to take pictures inside the Outdoor Store. There aren’t a lot of spaces where you feel completely welcome with a camera.

When I walked out of the store I lingered on the sidewalk, reverting to older habits.

These days I have learned to affect an air of indifference as I pre-visualize, camera tucked under an arm and out of sight. Taking the picture is as smooth a motion as I can make it, body on a plane orthogonal to the subject. If I am moving, there’s a brief pause in my gate. If I am still, I start moving. If I perceive people around me, I make sure my eyes are focused somewhere besides that person, or that I am facing away from them just a little, before the camera comes down from my face. As the camera comes down, I grasp the strap and let the camera swing around behind me so that as I pull it forward it’s tucked away again.

I have some rules:

  • No street people, unless they notice me and ask. It has happened a few times, but I’ve gotten good enough that they usually don’t.
  • No homeless, people sleeping on the street, etc. I let tents into the frame but never the people who live in them.
  • Nobody in distress.

These two asked:

Two people on a riverfront. One holding a cigarette, the other drinking from a can. They closed their eyes as the shutter was released and gave me the finger.

… and had their fun.

Those rules are reflective of some ethical concerns about misery porn, and some concern for my own well-being. I’ve been threatened a few times just being seen with a camera on me, and I’ve heard from other photographers who have been attacked. Sometimes the attacks sound like property crimes, other times they sound like people thought they were provoked.

Sometimes I inadvertently break a rule if I’m shooting at night or with a wide lens, or if I hurried a shot before going down the checklist. When that happens I check for a few things – if I can crop the issue out or credibly consider the inadvertent inclusion anonymous.

This is an example of what I consider an allowable mistake:

The Portland Outdoor Store at night, red neon sign and damaged storefront. In the shadows to the left are tents and people.

I am conflicted about a few things.

For instance, it isn’t possible to walk down the 205 bike path or the Springwater Corridor Trail without seeing evidence of human outdoor habitation, either active campsites or the remains of them as they repeat the cycle of encampment and eviction.

I don’t take pictures of active camps for their own sake. Sometimes they get into the background. I don’t take pictures of the people pushing carts up and down the trail. I take shots with people in them when I can anonymize the people and they don’t seem to be in dire straits.

I used to avoid taking pictures of the aftermath of an encampment, but lately I’ve begun to take a few. Those encampments are things that happen. They have consequences. I don’t share many of those pictures because the discussion about homelessness in this city has descended into a curdled, sour stalemate; another front in the culture war. I know who would use those pictures for ammunition.

This is the kind of thing I am talking about:

An abandoned, burned out car partially obscured by vines on a dirt lot.

I am also pretty careful around kids. I don’t have any rules about keeping them out of pictures, but even in relatively “safe” spaces (tourist spots, for instance) I just try to avoid pointing a camera in their direction because it makes lots of parents uneasy. Will you find pictures of kids in my portfolio? Yes, you will. Will you find many? No. And I know 90 percent of them and/or took the picture in a setting where permission is strongly implied.

Anyhow, that was a longer unpacking than I meant to get to the point that I am not a relaxed photographer most places. I do not confuse my legal rights with how other people experience a camera in use around them. When people stop me and ask why I’m taking pictures around them – not of them, just around them – I don’t lead with my rights, I lead with an honest explanation. My experience has always been positive in these cases: People have accepted the explanation. Sometimes they have offered that they’re sensitive because hostile land owners have been harassing them with cameras. I always just say, “oh, yeah. No. I don’t take pictures of people like that and I’m sorry they did that to you.”

Other photographers have scolded me, suggesting this is letting down our side. The only side in this I have is my own, and I behave the way I do out of the best balance I can strike of respect for others’ dignity and desire for relative anonymity in public spaces, ethical considerations, self-preservation, and, yes, my rights.

All of which is going toward how odd and nice it was to be told “take all the pictures you want,” and to even have a normally closed space opened to me so I could explore some more.

And also toward how it felt to step onto the sidewalk and momentarily forget I was out of that protected space. I stood there with my camera half to my eye, trying to judge a shot. Then some motion across the street caught my eye, and I started, and I tucked the camera away, walked half a block as if to scrub away the memory that I had even been there, then quietly walked back to my spot and looked for the shot again.

Up, snap, start moving, camera down, eyes averted.

Foreground: A vintage blue, gold, and white sign reads "Your BankAmericard welcome here." In the background, a red neon sign "PORTLAND OUTDOOR" with a partially lit bucking bronco.