"Wealth will increasingly be defined by our ability to go offline whenever we want." - Fernando Gros
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Blog // Images
October 6, 2010

Thiksey And Visual Aggression

Our visit to Thiksey Monastery brought one of the most extraordinary and perturbing experiences of the tour. While eating a quiet lunch, after a morning photographing, we were confronted by another traveller who took issue with our attempts to photograph, as a group, the monastery and its monks. In his words our whole approach was […]

Our visit to Thiksey Monastery brought one of the most extraordinary and perturbing experiences of the tour. While eating a quiet lunch, after a morning photographing, we were confronted by another traveller who took issue with our attempts to photograph, as a group, the monastery and its monks. In his words our whole approach was “…so aggressive.”

As is often the case, when people rant on behalf of others, our interlocutor came across as arrogant and condescending. Not just towards us – a group he did not know and seemed to have little interest in trying to understand – but, also towards those whom he probably imagined he was defending. In fact, he sounded like a spokesperson for post-colonial angst.

Which is a shame, because his broad point, about how our attempts to photograph places, either as individuals or in groups, affect those we try to shoot is an important one. Had our friend been a little more keen to converse and a little less keen to yell, it’s a topic I would have liked to discuss with him. Going forward, it’s a question I plan to bring up with every travel photographer I have the chance to meet.

For me, photographing in and around the places of worship was one of the most challenging aspects of the tour. I took a lot of photos of the rooftop call to prayer at Thiksey, but few for the rest of the day, or at the other gompas and monasteries that we visited. Even though I always felt the monasteries welcomed (and didn’t just tolerate) our presence, there is something about shooting people who are in prayer, or preparing to pray that makes me hesitant and cautious.

Permission and relationship play an important role here. I don’t photograph anyone who has made it clear they would not like to be photographed. Moreover, as a I learnt through the trip, the strongest images come when you have built some kind of connection with the people you are tying to make an image of; either by talking to them, spending time with them, or just waiting and observing them before you start to make images.

Such considerations aside, there is a troubling dynamic when you shoot as a group, be it three or thirty. The presence of a camera often changes the social fabric and multiple cameras can do so even more. Even amongst the nomads near Tso Moriri it was apparent that some, especially kids, were used to performing and posing for the camera.

I’m not sure what the answer is. On this tour we typically broke into smaller groups, often only two or three, when in more sensitive areas. But, even then you still have to be self-aware.

Truth is, even a lone photographer can cause insult and harm if their attitude is inappropriate. In a way, taking photos and making speeches are somewhat alike. Even when our ideas are good and noble, the way we approach the task, how we present ourselves and how we treat those we address will affect how we are received. In both cases poor execution can kill good ideas.

Responses
Javier I. Sampedro 12 years ago

Very interesting topic, I think can be talked a lot about it. I find myself not comfortable at all when I want to take pictures of people so I prefer taking from distance though I wish to be more close but first asking them for permission or just observ them and see if with their gestures they give me an approval and can proceed.

Even a bit more challenging in a place dedicated to pray where we have to know how to behave and consider when is more appropiate to shoot.

    Fernando Gros 12 years ago

    Javier – my tendencies are like yours. But, there is such a different quality when we shoot people closer up. One of my least satisfying photos from the trip was an early shot, of a farmer in a field – precisely the kind of travel shot I used to always take. In a way it was clever, the farmer was framed in a gap in the fence, backlit, etc. However, it felt kind of voyeuristic, like something a paparazzo would take.

Toni 12 years ago

I am very hesitant to photograph people if they are aware of me, but have no qualms if I am sure that they don’t know I’m there. For me it’s not voyeuristic, but instead creating a record, and sometimes possibly art out of a unique and ‘found’ situation.*

There’s a local photo competition relating to the place I work, and on Monday I cycled around the site taking pictures. At one point I came across a hall with a junior roller-blade hockey team practicing, and went back and forth for several minutes before plucking up the courage to ask if I could take pictures. Of course permission was readily granted, but I’m naturally nervous, asking people’s permission, and the last thing I want normally is a pose *because* generally it makes the image without meaning for me.

* This makes me wonder if I’m reducing humans to the level of objects alone: they could be a log or an animal for all the interaction I want with them. I have worked posing subjects before and will do again, but that’s an entirely different and un-natural kind of photography.

    Fernando Gros 12 years ago

    Toni – I connect with what you are saying. The last thing I usually want is for people to start posing. Oftentimes the photos I wish I could take, are of people in a cafe, just doing what they do in a cafe with no camera present – except I’m shooting in close and wide, with something like a 24mm!

    My comment about voyeurism was related directly to that farmer photo I mentioned. Not every shot taken long and in the style you describe qualifies as voyeuristic. I have one, on the banner of this blog that I took of a market street here in Hong Kong. Of course, I didn’t ask permission of everyone in that photo (there’s probably 50 or more people). But, aside from the picture’s faults, it works for me because it captures the “foundness” of that place.

    But, more importantly, I think you’ve raised a great question about the “role” people play in the image we make. In the street image I mentioned, the people are like scenery. That impersonal crowd thing is part of living in a big city, especially a crowded Asian city. What made the farmer photo feel voyeuristic to me, was that the farmer was a aware of my presence and we had no-one within at least a kilometre of us. I could have moved a lot closer, created a different sort of image, etc.

    Anyway, these are new struggles for me. I still have a lot more questions than answers.

Fred Thompson 8 years ago

This is a good discussion about being detached from the subject or interacting with the subject. Does interacting with the subject change the image that someone present to the photographer is a point that will always be argued. One of my favorite photos is a time that I was sitting 3/4 of the way up a mountain on the side of a trail. There were two people climbing the trial and I was able to photograph the discomfort they were feeling without them being aware that I was there. When they got close enough to talk to them I asked them if it would be okay to photograph them. It was amazing how much difference it made in their faces when they knew they were going to be photographed. It was a complete shift from what I saw minutes before.

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