Monday, January 07, 2013

Firing Squad

The easy availability of digital SLRs and affordability of large lenses has made everyone a photographer these days. But is that good? You be the judge. I am posting three photos below which were taken in and around Kolkata and posted on Facebook. As an amateur photographer myself, all I can say is that it makes me extremely uncomfortable to crowd around a non-celebrity person like this, especially during a religious ceremony or private moment. Click on the photos to view larger.

In Kolkata during Chhath Puja. I forgot who the photographer is.

At Bagh Bazar, Kolkata on Durga Puja Dashami day. Photographer: Lopamudra Bagh

A village child in Langolpota, near Kolkata. Photographer: Arpit Kr Saha

I could provide more examples, but I will stop at three. My friends in Kolkata tell me such scenes are common at every event these days. Also, half-naked poor village children are usually made to pose for hours, often made to run repeatedly in the sun or climb trees, so that every photographer in the group can get his or her best shot. A friend even heard a photographer telling someone who had come to place a wreath on a grave on All Souls' Day to weep more, since weeping would make the pictures better.

I wonder where this is headed. I don't want to judge, but it seems now everyone is doing what only a handful of photojournalists used to do earlier. As I said, I feel very awkward intruding into someone's personal space like that, and I could never support making some stranger (unless it's a paid model) pose for a "natural" photo. I feel waiting for the right moment and clicking the perfect shot without telling people to pose - that's what makes a great photograph. I am here to shoot life as it happens, not movie publicity stills.

What do you feel about the issue? Do you think I am just being cranky because I cannot be part of these festival shoots, or do you think things need to change?


  1. I agree with you, somewhat, on this one. I hate photographs which are deliberately posed and i find that the best moments are candid.
    Looking at the Baghbazar photo, i am somewhat ashamed to admit that i am a part of the crowd as well - however i ask permission to shoot before i take someone's photograph since i don't think it's fair to invade someone's privacy. It's also very tough otherwise, considering the crowd. Also I find most of the new breed handling DSLRs look down upon my P&S and rudely enter my frame. However, i have never asked these women to pose in any particular manner. That looks very artificial anyway and i find the scene of a dozen ppl with cameras yelling "do it again!" somewhat repulsive. Where is the fun in shooting an exact duplicate of someone else’s photograph?
    I found the instance of being asked to weep fake tears for a good photograph slightly disturbing as well. I am not completely against posed photos, for family vacations and such - but in a photowalk, i find it extremely disturbing and even pathetic. The difference also lies in being a photographer and just being someone with an expensive camera. I think we all need to understand that just wielding an expensive piece of equipment does not make everyone a photographer.

  2. @Keka di: Thanks for the detailed comment, and good to see you feel the way I do. Actually I am not even telling photographers to ask for permission - I understand that asking for permission from everyone in a crwded place is all but impossible. All I am saying is, have a little respect for the subjects, so that you don't interrupt them in the very activity that you are trying to photograph. That "do it again" thing is another one of my pet peeves - I hate it when professional wedding photographers ask the couple to repeat a procedure or hold a pose in the middle of the ceremony. My father has covered lots of weddings in his day, that too on film, and I have covered a couple of them. We never told anybody to repeat something. That's what you are being paid for - for clicking at the right moment!

    Baghbazar, I am sorry to say, has become a major attraction for all kinds of photographers who want to shoot the "Sindur khela" on the Dashami day. I am not saying photos should not be taken. But I have seen really disturbing "firing squads" around the ladies. The shy ones like you or me suffer. I perfectly know that looking-down-upon point and shoot thing too - they think the price of their equipment gives them the right to sneer at everyone with cheaper equipment.

    Posed photos are ok among friends and family, of course, or with a paid model. However, recently I have been hearing pathetic tales of photographers who go to villages or suburbs on photowalks and then exploit the hell out of the children there. This particular child, I heard, spent 4-5 hours posing in the sun. Some other little girls (on a different shoot) were made to run around in the sun until they panted, and then made to climb trees from where they could not climb down easily. The photographers left without helping them come down once the photos were taken. I cannot give you all the details here... maybe on chat.

  3. Sugata, I agree with you. But I would like to point out some things just for argument's sake. What these DSLR newbies are doing, photographing human vulnerability, professional photographers have done for a really long time. Think about African malnourished children, think about that famous picture of Afghan refugee girl...I am not comparing these DSLR mafia with Steve McCurry, but in my opinion, it is essentially the same thing.

  4. @Kuntala: I think I did not make myself clear. I do not have a problem with photographing human vulnerability (maybe I do, but I wasn't writing about it here). There are two problems with these DSLR newbies that I was complaining about: firstly, the act of 'flocking' or crowding around the subject forming a 'firing squad' in a manner that disrupts the very activity that they are trying to photograph. Secondly, the act of creating a situation without capturing what is really happening. While Steve McCurry actually stayed in the refugee camps, and National Geographic photographers spend years in famine-stricken regions or with dangerous animals to shoot that one great photo that stuns the world, these people drive an hour from Kolkata in a group of 30, and then find some 'vulnerable' village children to pose for them - sometimes for hours in the sun, sometimes deliberately sans clothes, creating some really uncomfortable situation for the 'models' who don't get paid (I am saying this from personal experience). So I do not think it is essentially the same thing.

  5. I have one more nit to pick regarding "people" photography. If the objective does not have a higher goal (as in some cases of photo journalism), the amateur photographer's attempt at candid photography, without the subject's permission, makes me very uncomfortable.

    I do not want my children playing in Central Park to be captured by someone I don't even know. I do not want to see a person totally unaware that he is being clicked caught in an odd moment in a stranger's camera. If the photographer does so with permission, and many do, it is fine but else I have a queasy feeling.

    That made me wonder, is there a code of conduct or something that photographers should abide by during these shoots ?

  6. @Bong Mom: I guess I am one of the guilty party in your view then, since I do shoot children (and adults) at Central Park without permission. The the law says I can shoot anybody (even children) in public space without a reasonable expectation of privacy (i.e. in a restroom or changing room etc.) and I do not need permission for that unless I plan to use the photos for some commercial purpose or to endorse a viewpoint/product.
    However, I and a lot of my other photographer friends follow a code of conduct: I do not shoot a person in a position or situation in which I myself would not want to be shot. So let us say I see someone passed out on the sidewalk, I would not take their photo since I would not want to be photographed if I ever pass out on the sidewalk. Even if such a photo is captured accidentally by me (let's say someone's dress flew up just as I was clicking something else), I make sure that photo never gets published. If you check out the candid photos on my photoblog you will get an idea of what I mean.

    Given the standard of journalism these days, I seriously doubt the presence of a "higher goal" even in photo journalism.

    Honoured to have you on my blog! Thanks for commenting. :-)

  7. Guilty bolbo na. That is just something I am not comfortable with, you know I don't want my kids ending up in some stranger's laptop. A little paranoid :-D Your photo blog is really beautiful and the kind of candid you took, like say of the bride in NYC is fine enough.

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