A Thousand Words On Photography

THERE may be a time and place under heaven for everything, but some times come later than others. I decided to be a freelance writer at the age of 35 and, prompted by the impulse to make myself more marketable, I also decided to take photos. Purely a capitalistic impulse: selling photos would help me sell my articles. But after several weeks of a beginning photography course, where I learned to spelunk my way through the darkroom, my mercenary impulse changed. I couldn't set the change to words at the time, but what I was feeling was the power of the camera to simultaneously release and capture the eye.

I actually started to make a little money from my pictures. Most of the photos I had to take for my articles were standard shots of the staff and the president and the office manager, with an occasional skewed-slant picture of the company sign. But they were good pictures to teethe on. They made me pay attention to simple but important details of composition like forehead shine and that strange intruding object on the periphery I hadn't noticed before.

But on another level it didn't matter that I made some money from pictures because I'd found something more important. I started going out on ``shoots'' for myself, spending a day in Boston photographing the sleeping homeless or an afternoon at a playground with children swirling around the lens. My frame of vision, my ability to frame a vision, changed, as it does with any photographer, from seeing with the eye to seeing with the camera. The world around me became a broadcast of collectible elements; life became a series of scenes, of ``opportunities.'' At first this bothered me because it seemed to split the world into nothing but discrete objects ready to be tidied into a picture by ``ME,'' the photography god.

Taking more and more pictures made me realize how arrogant and mistaken that attitude is. The world allows me to take pictures by giving me such a rich chaos to chose from. I don't arrange anything. Or, maybe better, I can arrange a posture or an angle, but I cannot fully harness the dancers. What finally emerges in a picture depends as much upon good fortune and quantum vibrations as it does preparation.

But it would be inaccurate to imply that good fortune and preparation aren't connected. What I've learned so far is that like any other artist I have to prepare myself for it. I have to ready myself for the wholly unknowable serendipitous moment when the universe commands me to ``Snap it!'' Learning tools of the trade, the mechanics of f-stop and aperture and composition, goes along with (borrowing a notion from Emerson) tutoring my whole being to become an eye that absorbs light and turns it into commentary. Each informs the other with power so that when the universe says ``Look, there!'', the camera and the photographer, working as one eye and one thought, turn the language of light into the language of witness.

Sometimes the witness can be simply colloquial, the kinds of pictures my local newspaper likes: children with dripping ice-cream cones at the beach, a duck in the middle of a lake at sunset - in short, the ordinary's frozen moment.

But the witness can be more charged, and it's this level of photography that interests me most. On my desk are two pictures, one focusing on the individual, the other on the political, and though they are unrelated, they share a similar verve of testimony. The first is of five office workers in Atlanta hanging out a sixth-floor window waiting to be rescued from a fire.

The photograph is taken looking up from the ground, and on their faces is a mixture of bewilderment and hope, exasperation and fear. What make this photo effective is the rich presentness of the moment. While bustling news-at-eleven video footage might give us the ``scene,'' it's the stillness of the arrested image that invokes our humanity. Because we get to look at their faces for more than a glance, we can read in their stark gazes what might have been our own feelings, our own fright and tension, and find empathy.

The second photo is more brutal. It's a picture, taken by a Chinese photographer, of soldiers beating a student to death in Beijing. The student cowers at the bottom of a well of clubs and gun butts. Other soldiers to the right and left of the tableau look on or look away. Gruesome, and utterly horrifying.

But this one photograph gives the lie to the story Chinese authorities have been proffering to the world. This one photograph makes truth the property of everyone who sees it, truth communicated in a more piercing way than any wire report. This picture will save us from doubt and apathy, fire up our desire for justice.

A recent example of the way photography can make Eudora Welty's ``fleeting moment'' spark and crackle is an exhibit traveling the country. Titled ``Photographs of the Powerless/Photographs by the Powerless,'' former UPI photographer Jim Hubbard has shot a portfolio of the despair of America's homeless. Among the charged pictures is one which shows effectively how the camera can sharpen what the eye might otherwise overlook.

IN the photograph, a group of homeless people sit at the base of the sign outside the Department of Justice in Washington. The picture is cropped just above the words ``Department of Justice'' so that they float over the group like some ironic Pentecostal flame. No commentary is necessary to underscore the injustice being done in the picture. An observer on the street watching the scene might miss the irony, or want to get past it as soon as possible. But the tight focus and selected border of the photo make that impossible. Forced to take notice, the observer can no longer feign indifference.

But providing witness through the camera has its snares. Taking pictures means intruding, and this can tempt the photographer to believe that he or she is exempt from the situation being photographed. When I was covering a demonstration at the Seabrook nuclear plant in June, I felt invisible and invincible behind my camera as the crowd moved closer to the line of police at the gate. Recording the events had the paradoxical effect of making me feel that I wasn't really a part of them, that I was immune to principle or danger.

It wasn't until they started arresting photographers as well as protesters that the delusion dropped away. But I saw how easy it would be to snap a picture of suffering and believe that the suffering was none of my concern, to save the photo and not the person. I learned that it was important to use the camera in the service of getting people to see what they might not be able to see, and resist the temptation to feed my own hubris.

It has been wonderful to discover that new ways of seeing are still available, to feel that I am participating in light, doing something that's an antidote to gravity and a balance weight to time.

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