Photography: A two-way act of respect

Henri Cartier-Bresson once famously said, "A velvet hand, a hawk's eye - these we should all have." 

When we photograph, we must become invisible.  We must not interfere with our subjects or influence their actions, reactions or interactions; we must be a latent observer and a surreptitious chronicler of events.  We must watch, see, anticipate and document while exerting no influence. 

The only way to accomplish that is to become the invisible man (or woman).  Otherwise we will not capture the unguarded moment; Cartier-Bresson's elusive and much sought after decisive moment appears for an instant and vaporizes before our eyes just as quickly, never again to return.  In documentary photography, there are no second chances; there are no do-overs.  To capture the decisive moment precludes asking permission to photograph before doing so. 

Magnum photographer Thomas Hoepker addressed this point when he was questioned about photographing without asking first:  "If I had asked you, I wouldn't have the picture - or else the picture would be a lie." 

Documentary photographers seek to record truth; take away the option of being able to exercise photographic spontaneity and the truths we seek to record are forever gone - and they won't be coming back to give you another bite at the apple.

Henri Cartier-Bresson understood this:  “Photographers deal in things which are continually vanishing and when they have vanished there is no contrivance on earth which can make them come back again.”

Many people in today's world do not understand why a total stranger (like me) would photograph a person they don't know and have never even met (like them).  It is my intent and my hope that by sharing these observations on the subject of candid documentary photography as well as the thoughts of some of the most gifted and prolific image makers to ever live that we can all arrive at a better understanding of each other and the process. 

Any photographer who a person of integrity and principle seeks not to exploit the subject of their photographic endeavors but rather seeks to portray them with a sense of honor and respect.  As Garry Winogrand observed, "I like to think of photographing as a two-way act of respect.  Respect for the medium, by letting it do what it does best, describe.  And respect for the subject, by describing it as it is.  A photograph must be responsible to both." 

That is what we as photographers strive for:  To be responsible to both the medium and our subject - the latter even more so than the former.


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