Rule 11: The Social Photographer

Every picture tells a story, don't it...

The photo that accompanies this post isn’t a classic by any stretch of the imagination, but I love the story that goes with it, because I think it underscores a point that’s easy for us to forget when we’re out there clicking away. Photography can sometimes seem — and in fact be — a bit of a solitary activity. In a sense, you’re alone with whatever’s on the other side of the viewfinder. I’ve previously mentioned that it’s good to engage with your subject, whether or not it’s animate; at the same time, it’s also a good idea to engage with those around you, whether or not you ever intend to take their picture.

The solitude that often comes with photography can be a wonderful, and peaceful, thing. I think it’s one of my favorite things about the craft, because you can have as much or as little solitude as you’re inclined to have at any given time.

Of course, if you’re in the habit of always having a camera with you — especially when the camera that’s with you is a clunky-looking and conspicuous SLR — you’re bound to get some strange looks from people. Get used to that. But also get used to talking to people. You might be a bit uncomfortable at first, but if you look at it from their point of view, it’s probably a bit awkward having someone in their midst with a huge-ass camera.

Also keep in mind that it doesn’t have to be a full-fledged conversation. Sometimes just a nod, a hello, or a simple smile can be enough to put everyone at ease. Other times, you have to be as willing to listen as to say anything. While shooting some of the photos that accompanied last week’s post on Hurricane Irene, I came across a gentleman who asked if I was with the press. I answered that I wasn’t, and asked how he’d made out during the storm. He talked a bit about the hard time he was having convincing his father, a World War II veteran, to move to an area where the threat of serious flooding wasn’t always hanging over his head. Before we parted ways, he thanked me for hearing him out (which, under the circumstances, seemed like the least I could do). Were there photo opportunities going on around me? Maybe. At the time, though, my presence as a “photographer” was about the least important thing I could’ve done. I’ve talked before about being present in the moment to be present in your photography, but sometimes, we need to put the camera to one side — whether figuratively or literally — and be present to what, and who, is around us.

Oh, and the photo at the top of the post? One evening, I’m wandering through town, taking shots in the fading light, and I come across this sign outside a real estate office. As I’m snapping away, I see someone beckon to me from the office window. This person, I think, may not be all that happy that I’m shooting outside his building. We meet at the entrance.

“What’cha doing?”

“Getting shots of your sign.”

He, predictably, looks at me funny. “Why?”

“C’mere. Look at this.” I beckon him to where I was standing, and point to the sign. “Look at that light! It’s perfect!”

We both laugh. He’s probably  laughing partly at me as well as with me at that point, but that’s alright, ’cause by then I can’t help but laugh at myself. I’m sure that the longer I shoot, the more stories like these I’ll likely have; every photographer has them. Keep in mind, though, that we’re not the only ones with memories and stories of times like these; you probably don’t want someone else’s stories and memories of you to be what a jerk you were. Don’t be afraid to be social!

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