I see this sight with increasing frequency: people holding up their phone in front of their face, recording a cool event or situation, like a concert or speech, watching the three-dimensional live event through a tiny screen.
It’s a conscious decision, choosing to record the moment rather than experiencing the purity and reality of that moment. It’s a choice photographers know something about.
It’s true, a photographer walks and balances on a thin line between the world we inhabit and the world we photograph. We’re usually not the active participants doing the things that people in our photographs are doing; and we’re not the passive audience watching them. It’s a unique space between the two worlds that I know well and one that I’m comfortable occupying.
To do my thing I don’t need to be in the actual moment but need to concentrate and be in the “photographic moment”. It’s often a lonely pursuit.
I was thinking about this because I recently watched Ben Stiller’s re-make of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. There’s a scene that addresses the idea of putting the camera down to experience the actual moment–not through the viewfinder.
Ben Stiller’s character asks Sean Penn’s character — pro photographer Sean — who has been been waiting hours to capture a snow leopard that finally wanders into the frame–an obvious question…
“When are you gonna…take it?
To which Sean replies….
“Sometimes I don’t…if I like a moment…I don’t like to have the distraction of the camera…so I stay in it (the moment).”
Really? You didn’t take the shot?
It’s a great sentiment and I think non-photographers watching the movie can enjoy the scene and move on but for me, it took me right out of the movie.
It’s just not realistic and no photographer I know would ever not take the shot… but maybe that’s just cynical me. I can enjoy moments in my life when I’m not shooting, but when I’m with camera I much prefer capturing that moment rather than just seeing it. Every time.
I see photographers depicted in movies and often it’s just not realistic… a gang of press photographers awkwardly holding their cameras without fingers at their ready on the shutter release, and it takes me away from the story. I’ve seen it in big-budget films where there’s no excuse for the lack of attention to detail and realism.
(By the way, I don’t remember when in time the Walter Mitty film is purported to take place, but that’s a Nikon F3 Titanium — nice — and what looks like a more modern AF super-telephoto lens.)
In my photography career I have occasionally put my camera down for my own personal safety or out of respect for privacy. But if there is a great image in front of me, I may not always get it but I’ve always tried. In those situations I never put the camera down to enjoy the moment and not take the picture. In fact, if I see great pictures and don’t have a camera I almost look away. (Which is why I always have a camera with me).
I realize that photography is a big umbrella and I’m generalizing here but maybe there’s something about a photographers’ personality that keeps us on the line between living the life we capture and finding the perfect spot to view and record it. I’m basically shy and I thank my camera everyday for dragging my butt out into the world and bringing me to amazing places to witness magical moments I would never get to without it. No regrets; it’s who I am.
Though photographers don’t always participate in the life we shoot, our eyes are wide open, alive and on the lookout for beauty and meaning; something the people staring into their phones as they dangerously navigate the streets are missing. Good thing we were there to photograph it for them.
Where do you stand on this issue?
About the author: Steve Simon is a photographer based in New York City who’s obsessed with documentary photography and all things photographic. You can find more of his work and writing on his website and blog. This article was also published here.