PetaPixel

Observing vs. Participating: Behind the Camera

schrocat

A camera can be many things. A tool, to produce an image. A bridge, to start a conversation. An observer, to record an event, or bear witness to something. A shield, to distance and separate the photographer from the scene he or she is attempting to capture.

There’s a big difference between being part of the action, and just being a witness to the action. Which do you think makes for stronger images? Unquestionably, the former. However, it’s not that simple: photojournalism is like quantum mechanics.

Let’s take a little detour. Quantum mechanics 101: under the quantum mechanical realm – i.e. the very small – an observable event has no distinct state, but rather a continuum of probability. This means that there’s the potential for any possible outcome to our observable event; however, until we observe it, we don’t know what the outcome will be. However, the very act of observing the event changes the outcome – because once the outcome has been observed, it can no longer be any of the other possible outcomes. This changes the probability continuum for the event, thus changing the event itself.

The best example of this is Erwin Schrodinger’s cat thought experiment. A box, which contains a live cat, has a lid that triggers a mechanism that might kill the cat. So until you open the lid of the box, you don’t know if the cat is dead or alive; by observing the cat, you interfere with its state of being: namely, you might kill it by checking if it’s really alive or not.

A demonstration of the link between quantum mechanics and photography. Behaviour of the person in the middle didn’t change until he saw me bring the camera up.

A demonstration of the link between quantum mechanics and photography. Behaviour of the person in the middle didn’t change until he saw me bring the camera up.

Back to photography. As a photojournalist, if you are an observer, you do not generally interfere with the course of events – aside from any secondary impact arising from people viewing your images, and possibly taking action or interfering with the course of history.

However, if you are a participant rather than an observer then by taking photographs, you are directly interfering with the event. From a photographic point of view, it means that the images you get may be more powerful, but not necessarily as genuine because the subjects are aware of the camera and will almost certainly change their behavior accordingly, which again changes the image and changes the course of events because the subjects change the way they act around the camera. As a stealth operative, you will capture the natural reactions of your subjects – but at the expense of involvement for the viewing audience.

Active participation at a family event.

Active participation at a family event.

They’re very different types of images, and both have their advantages and disadvantages – to say nothing of the ethical dilemmas posed for a photojournalist when covering certain events, for instance wars and natural disasters. I can’t say whether one is better than the other, but I do know that it’s much more difficult to get powerful images if you are not a participant – simply because the focus of the subject is not the camera.

Passive observer.

Passive observer.

I’ve always felt the best compromise is to be an observer, but an active one: anticipate and seek out your targets; study behavior and be ready for what comes next, so when that one fleeting moment of critical action – what HC-B memorably termed ‘the decisive moment’ – you are ready, and manage to capture it.

Required a lot of anticipation because a) the M8 is manual focus; b) you have to shoot wide open in the low light conditions of the Underground; c) here’s the kicker: they were on an escalator moving in the opposite direction to me, so there was really only one chance to get the shot.

The Kiss. Required a lot of anticipation because a) the M8 is manual focus; b) you have to shoot wide open in the low light conditions of the Underground; c) here’s the kicker: they were on an escalator moving in the opposite direction to me, so there was really only one chance to get the shot.

There are times when you should not be a passive observer. In intimate social situations, for example, hiding behind your camera would just come across as awkward, antisocial and downright rude. Portraiture is another example. People naturally connect and express emotion more easily when there’s another human on the receiving end, rather than an enormous and intimidating piece of glass attached to a big black camera.

Perhaps this is why smaller cameras such as the compact system cameras and rangefinders are seeing a modern resurgence (aside from the obvious size and weight benefits) – they remove a layer between you and your subject in a couple of ways.

Firstly, if you’re interacting with your subject, they can see your face; body language is the vast majority of communication, and your subject will take visual cues from you. If you’re not interacting with your subject, smaller cameras attract a lot less attention, and let you shoot without the subject being conscious of your presence.

I have no problem shooting in very close quarters with a good point and shoot or mirrorless camera – the Ricoh GR-Digital III and Olympus Pen Mini are my favorites because of size and responsiveness – and to a lesser extent, the Leica M9-P. The full-sized Nikons are a no-no (especially anything with a battery grip or large aperture lens) unless you’re in a public situation where the expectation is a lot of people will have cameras and be taking photos.

Never a problem finding a protest if you’re shooting a Leica. Just look like you’re a world-weary photojournalist and you’d be surprised how many ‘official’ lines you can get past.

Never a problem finding a protest if you’re shooting a Leica. Just look like you’re a world-weary photojournalist and you’d be surprised how many ‘official’ lines you can get past.

Speaking of expectations, this should be a good guide to what equipment and technique is best suited to get the best images: if you’re expected to look and play the part of a photographer – a fashion shoot, for instance – using a small camera so the model can see your face probably isn’t going to get you the results you desire. If you’re trying to be stealthy and cover an insurgent protest, then a point and shoot probably is a good idea to help you keep a low profile. Street photography is something else that’s best done with compacts, too. Bottom line: take your cue from your subjects.

One final word: if you are not comfortable, then it will show in your body language. Remember, most communication is nonverbal: this means you’re also going to make your subjects aware of your discomfort (and probably also make them feel uncomfortable with the situation). Most important tip: be confident, regardless of whatever your equipment choice, and however you chose to shoot. Photographers create images: appearing the part is a very important piece of the puzzle.


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About the author: Ming Thein is a Malaysia-based photographer whose career has spanned fine watches, wildlife, photojournalism, travel, concerts and food. Visit his website here. This post was originally published here.


Image credits: Diagram of Schrödinger’s cat theory by Dhatfield/Wikipedia


 
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  • http://www.facebook.com/duke.shin1 Duke Shin

    Am I the only one who’s at least a bit creeped out by the cat-box-russian experiment?

  • olafs_osh

    too much water for my taste. water, water, water.

  • tyrohne

    namely, you might kill it by checking if it’s really alive or not./endquote

    no. your actions have zero chance of effecting the state of the cat. ever. rather, the cat exists in an unknown state until you open the box. the only thing you gain or lose from opening the box is determining the actual state of the cat (because an isotope could have decayed or not, thereby releasing the poison.

    I still don’t quite understand the context of schrodinger’s cat to photojournalism. seems specious and tangential at best and muddies your thesis.

  • http://twitter.com/syuaip Syuaip

    what’s with the Schrodinger? i think it should be a Heisenberg…

  • Rob

    In the case of the cat in a box, listening would suffice – translated into visual – take a picture of the box and title it Cat in a Box …..

  • cpomag

    I can boil this down for you without the hyperbole is scientific quantification. In photography, you can never create a passive image whether you are involved in the scene or with the subject matter. The reason? The camera itself alters the scene. So, thevery tool you use prevents an accurate depiction of what you are shooting…it interprets the subject or scene and generates results based on it’s format and, in the case of digital cameras, software. Simply put, there can be no exact interpretation of any scene as there is no way to observe or capture without some form of processing and altering.

  • CGP

    Schrodinger was Austrian, and it was a thought experiment; no actual cats were involved.

  • Alan Dove

    Physical analogies don’t fit at the human scale. We’re not particles. What’s really going on here is just social interaction, and the presence of any socially freighted object (a camera, a gun, a briefcase full of cash) will inevitably change that interaction.

    If you nonetheless insist on torturing physics, the analogy you’re looking for in this case is called the “observer effect,” which is often confused with Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle but is actually subtly different. The observer effect applies to a variety of phenomena at various scales, and means that the act of measuring something changes the measurement. A simple example: sticking a thermometer into an object to measure its temperature causes the thermometer to absorb some heat, changing the object’s temperature slightly even as it measures it. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle just says that the way you measure particular events at the subatomic scale changes the type of information you can get about them, i.e. the more precisely you know a particle’s energy, the less precisely you know its position. Schrödinger’s cat was simply a thought experiment intended to show how quantum mechanics conflicts with common sense.

  • http://troyholden.com/ Troy Holden

    I think the point of the article is to encourage us to take more pictures of cats. Bonus points if the cat is in some sort of box when you’re releasing the shutter.

  • http://www.facebook.com/duke.shin1 Duke Shin

    Totally a different story from GLaDOS’s attempt.

  • harumph

    I think the author just doesn’t understand the point of the thought experiment.

  • tyrohne

    i wonder if the cats were hypothetically promised cake?

  • http://www.facebook.com/duke.shin1 Duke Shin

    There really was a cake, you know.

  • http://www.facebook.com/duke.shin1 Duke Shin

    Don’t open the box.

    You’ll ruin your film/dirty your sensor.

  • http://www.bobcooleyphoto.com/ bob cooley

    Agreed – the author misses the point of the Schrödinger thought experiment, it’s a bad analog for his thesis.

    Typically, the point of analogy is to make your thesis simpler to understand – using an esoteric thought experiment on quantum mechanics is going in the wrong direction if you are trying to enlighten your audience via metaphor.

    While I’m sure the author has the best intentions, he would do well to read Marshall McLuhan.

  • http://www.facebook.com/rabi.abonour Rabi Abonour

    As a photographer, you are never a truly passive observer. Unless you are stalking someone with a telephoto, your presence is known. Photojournalists like to pretend we are invisible, but of course we are not. In the third image, demonstrating being a passive observer, you can be sure that those people are aware of the camera. They may not be consciously reacting to it, but they know it’s there.

    Ironically, I believe being active is the best way to get to a point where passive observation is possible. By immersing yourself in the world of your subjects, they will eventually become comfortable with you. Comfort is what truly allows for candid capture. Invisibility is an illusion, comfort is real.