My Guilt-Inducing, Nausea-Provoking Street Photography Obsession
Speaker's Corner: Rob Verger's quest for the perfect travel shot sometimes churns his stomach. But it's a small price to pay for what he's after.
11.22.10 | 10:26 AM ET
The guard approached and asked me nicely, in Spanish, to come with him. He led me to a man who I assumed was his boss, a man in business clothes, not a uniform, standing on a Bogotá street. With my camera wedged in my front right pocket, I held my hands out slightly, my palms forward, in an I’m-not-a-threat gesture. He didn’t speak much, if any, English, and I know very little Spanish, but what he wanted to know was clear: Why was I taking so many photographs? In Spanish, I said I was an American tourist. (That must have been a shocker.) I handed him my camera, and he looked through the photos, unhurriedly.
What he saw in my camera were dozens of photos of the changing of the presidential guard, which my guidebook had noted would happen at 4 o’clock on Friday, not far from the expansive and pigeon-filled Plaza de Bolivar. And so I had scurried over there, camera at the ready, thinking that although it was a touristy thing to do, it might yield some good photos. I had taken lots of photographs—not because I felt the need to capture every moment, but because I knew that the more I took, the likelier I was to get one or two good shots. I had snapped a photo, with permission, of two guards standing on a corner, one in a blue and gold dress uniform, the other in a more practical dark green uniform, a machine gun slung around his shoulders and his pants tucked into his black boots. I had taken photos of soldiers—members of the Batallón Guardia Presidencial—lining up, drilling and marching: some of them in funny red and blue uniforms, white gloves, and tall hats with flat tops. When another group of soldiers in blue dress uniforms marched down the street, I had followed along, loving the intensity of the moment: the rhythmic pounding of their boots on the ground, the patterns of the guns and uniforms, the order and military drama. I had taken a few shots, with permission, of guards standing in front of a big, black, ornate gate affixed with two golden seals. Was it the gate to the presidential compound?
After a minute or two of questioning and further study, I was free to go. It was just a quick conference on the street, and I hadn’t done anything wrong, but the moment was enough to rattle me. As I walked away, and for the next few hours, I felt nauseated and embarrassed and upset with myself. I think I had taken one photo too many. Why had I pushed it? Why was I obsessed with trying to get the perfect shot? And what makes a great travel shot, anyway?
Something happens when I travel and take pictures, and it’s related to a feedback loop that’s both good and bad. The more photos I take, the more I start thinking in images, and that leads to more picture taking. At its core, this obsession can be a good thing, because it leads to better, more artistic photos. But for me, street photography can be emotionally complicated. Because I love it, and because it brings me satisfaction when it goes well, I continue to do it. But in a lot of places, it’s not a brilliant idea to flash a camera. Also, the more I do it, the guiltier I feel. Not always, but sometimes. In developing countries especially, the more I hold my camera to my eye, the more I feel like the ugly tourist, the man from a wealthy country working to capture a piece of a poorer one—or, more accurately, working to try to capture something beautiful, or some sense of emotion or feeling tied to how I see the place. I ask permission when it’s easy to do so, but sometimes, I don’t. Maybe it’s not just the power difference that bothers me, because I’ll take photos anywhere that’s interesting to me, including my home turf. Maybe it’s just that snapping a photo of someone without asking can be rude, or voyeuristic. My guess is that I’m not the only traveler with a camera and a heightened sensitivity who has snapped a shot or six and then felt a twinge of guilt.
However, studying the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson has helped me think more sharply about street photography. (An expansive exhibition of his photography, which I saw at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City this spring, piqued my interest in his work; an exhibit of his work now at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art runs to Jan. 30, 2011.) Regardless of the moral ambiguity or the occasional discomfort of the practice, there’s a long tradition of street photography, and Cartier-Bresson was one of its most famous vanguards and masters.
His work, both artistic and journalistic, spans a spectrum from moments on the street, to portraiture, to world events. Nearly all his photos show people in the landscapes they inhabit, and always with striking composition and geometry. He’s famous for his in-the-moment photography, and once said that he wanted “to preserve life in the act of living.” In his photographs, children play in Spanish ruins. Women beckon from behind wooden doors in Mexico. My favorite? Two women on a wooden bridge are washing clothes in an icy black river, forming ripples. Their heads are covered. In the background, grass pokes through a dusting of snow, and onion-shaped domes rise to the sky. It’s titled Suzdal, Russia, and it was taken in 1972. To me it has a beautiful, melancholy bleakness, and it captures—and shapes—an image I have of the Soviet Union in my head. (The following image is equally striking and desolate.) Isn’t that what great photography can and should do? Transport you, and evoke emotion? Give you a bigger, deeper feeling about the world?
Cartier-Bresson photographed across the globe—from Europe to the Ivory Coast to Mexico to New York City, as well as across Asia, Cuba, and the Soviet Union. In New York in the mid-1930s, he “went on wandering the streets of Harlem for days on end, Leica in hand, eyes everywhere,” as his biographer, Pierre Assouline, wrote. I know that “eyes everywhere” feeling: an image-finder in your head, thinking: Is this a shot? Is that a shot? And sometimes, you push the button on the camera, and voila, you’ve captured something eternal.
His work is not all street photography, but a lot of it is, and so many of the photos carry an emotional punch. “Sometimes his obsession with composition was completely satisfied,” Assouline wrote about Cartier-Bresson’s picture taking in Asia, “but he would nevertheless drop the photo from his final selection because it lacked the spiritual dimension that made all the difference.” I think that formula might be a good guideline for anyone who works at street photography: a strict sense of composition (Assouline wrote that Cartier-Bresson had “an obsession with geometry”) plus some x-factor of humanity or motion that breathes life into a photo. This photograph offers a great example: The geometry of the staircase and the curving street are beautiful on their own, but I wonder how long Cartier-Bresson waited at the top of the stairs for that bike to glide by?
His biographer describes one of his methods: “He would go for a walk, furtively take his shot, and walk on as if nothing had happened. By being furtive and by walking on, he probably avoided all sorts of trouble.” Except once in Mexico, where he “received a severe reprimand from the mayor of a village after he had taken some completely harmless shots of a tree in front of a wall—but the wall in question was that of the ladies’ baths.” Street photography can be risky business.
Consciously or not, I’ll probably hold Cartier-Bresson’s photos as models to aspire to. As his work shows, every once in a while, it’s possible to get a photo that captures and conveys a feeling, something meaningful. It’s happened to me a few times, judging solely by measure of my own personal satisfaction. Once, in Nepal, on a rainy morning, I walked alone in Kathmandu, a place where I had studied abroad years before. And then I saw them: two little girls sharing a blue umbrella, standing in front of a sign painted on a wall. The words STUDY ABROAD were written in bold letters, like a validation of the decision I had made long ago. I took a picture. One girl is holding the blue umbrella, and the other is looking down into the contents of a white plastic bag. I like that they’re both caught in a moment of everyday life on a dreary day. It’s not the most earth-shattering photo, but for me, the image captures something emotionally true and powerful about Nepal—or more specifically, my experience there—something about tenderness or humanity.
That desire to “preserve life in the act of living,” as Cartier-Bresson put it, is what drives me—and I think it’s what drives any traveler with a camera who aspires to any kind of art. That’s why, for all its potential rudeness or its perils, I’ll continue to take photos on the street and elsewhere, in the hopes of getting a really good one, if for no one else but for me, and if for no other reason but to please some artistic or spiritual or aesthetic part of myself. It’s why I pushed it in Bogota, and it’s why I think many of us take pictures when we travel. The truth is, it’s hard to resist.