How about Susan Sontag in 2017?

In her famous book, “On photography”, Susan Sontag explains that a photographer ought to be aware of the fact that he or she, in a way, immortalizes the people portrayed.

The image will exist forever and will not change. What does change is the context in which the photograph is exposed,  the contemporary perceptions and the changing perception to visual content in general.

When the content of her book was written in the mid 1970’s photography had a different role in our societies. A photograph was a document, mostly taken by a professional photographer. Our private photos taken of our friends and families on holidays, birthday parties or other special events were kept in our photo albums on a shelf.

A particular photograph or portrait can be shown in various contexts. So the meaning of the photo may change. The parameters of this change are numerous. Where is the photo shown? What is the context? When is the photo shown? Has the public opinion about the context changed?

Nowadays the majority of our images are shown and viewed on the social media. Do Susan Sontag´s worries still apply? And does a portrait still have context, rather than being just a narcissistic “selfie”?

As I stated in my previous blog posts the role of photography has drastically changed. Maybe it has become less “official” and as a result more shallow and superficial.

In my work as a photographer I maintain the attitude of being cautious with the publication of my photographs and would never publish any photo without the consent of the subjects in the photo.

WeeGee exposition in Barcelona

Today I went to a photography exposition of WeeGee in Barcelona.
WeeGee was an American photographer who photographed street scenes at night in New York in the 1940ies. While looking at the superb prints we discussed the question whether he may have staged some scenes. 

In my opinion all his street photos were pure reportage shots. He would encounter a situation and he´d quickly decide from where he´d shoot without changing anything. Of course we do not know. It may well be that my idea of how he worked is similar to what I would do. I always try to find photos. 

When I photograph a wedding reportage I follow the course of events and I try to predict what is going to happen next so that I have enough time to position myself on the right spot. In my previous blog post I have already talked about this. 

 So to what extent should a wedding photographer intervene in what is happening in order to obtain better photos? Does an intervention from the photographer improve the quality of the photos? I strongly believe it does not.

As I wrote in my previous blog post I want to capture the couple as they are. Therefore I believe it is important that I am an invisible bystander who is ignored by the protagonists and the guests. At any rate WeeGee was not just a bystander; people in some of his photographs are cheerfully looking at us. It seems they were in contact with the photographer. Still I believe he did not stage any of his photographs.  

How does the photographer prepare for a wedding?

Apart from the technical issues like equipment, available light in the different venues, the program during the day et cetera, there is, in my opinion, a much more important question: How am I going to capture the couple and their story so that they and their families will recognise themselves in the images. Every photographer has ideas and beliefs. We are inspired by the work of others or we take into account the wishes of the bridal couple.

If we were to stick too strictly to our ideas, conventions or expectations we may not capture what is really happening on the day itself; we will not capture the couple or the story of the day but we will be photographing our ideas.

I am huge fan of “finding photos”. Which means that the photographer is very alert and present and that he goes with the flow of the events. This way we will photograph the people and not our ideas or conventions.

In preparation for a wedding I take the book “Daar komt de bruid” (“Here comes the bride”) of the Dutch photographer Max Koot from my bookshelf.

In this black and white photo book from 1981 the photographer explains how he photographs people: “A photographer could take a beautiful photo; light effects, composition etc. perfectly all right. The people portrayed are then less important than the glory of the photographer. Or a photographer knows beforehand how the photo is going to be. In fact the photographer then is photographing him or herself.”

Eventually he explains what according to him is the best attitude: “I focus on the people, I want to capture the way they are, rather than fitting them in a template of a conventional beautiful photo. I prefer the mother of the bride crying over a photo of her child because I have captured the way she is rather than being applauded for an astonishing photo of the couple backlit by the sunset ”

To most documentary photographers Max Koot´s attitude may seem obvious but in my experience we need to repeat this over and over again so that we don´t get seduced into taking photos which are just beautiful.

Therefore I always take some time to glance through Max Koot´s book before the wedding day.

Photos from the book “Daar komt de bruid” (1981) Max Koot

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