Brief: Closely consider the work of the practitioners discussed above, then try to shoot a series of five portraits of subjects who are unaware of the fact they are being photographed. As you’ve seen, there are many ways in which you can go about this, but we can’t stress enough that the objective here is not to offend your subjects or deliberately invade anyone’s privacy. If you don’t have permission to shoot in a privately-owned space, then you should only attempt this work in a public space, where permission to shoot is not necessarily required.
This is a very interesting challenge, which some students will find incredibly difficult. Remember that the creative outcome of the practitioners discussed above has come about through a sustained approach, which is then heavily edited for presentation. You’ll need to shoot many images in order to be able to present five final images that work together as a set.
Think everything through carefully before attempting this exercise as the responsibility
for the outcome of the portraits rests entirely with you. If during the course of this exercise you are challenged in any way, be prepared to delete what you have shot. If you can
see that you are annoying someone, or making them feel uncomfortable, stop shooting immediately. You’ll be required to operate with a degree of common sense here and not take unnecessary risks. There are ways of completing this exercise without incurring risk, such as shooting the work at a party you’ve been invited to, where all the guests have been invited for a particular celebration.
The reflection about your methodology will be as important as the final five images, so be prepared to write about how you found the experience (around 500 words) and present your findings via your learning log or blog.
1. Thinking about the work of Evans, Parr, Kozma, and Wood.
I last did some ‘street photography’ in Venice where everyone has a camera and it easy to get close to people. I don’t think it is easy to be covert in Newcastle upon Tyne as people are less accepting of being photographed, more aware of observations and more suspicious of intentions. Mine is not the style of Bruce Gilden, “get close, then closer,” but more interactive such as in the work of William Klein where the presence of the camera is included as a ‘third person.’ This module is about covert as well as observation. There are a number of things I learnt from exploring these photographers that I can apply in my work.
Martin Parr: Recognise a situation where covert photography is possible. In his ‘Japanese Commuters, 1998’ series he photographs sleeping commuters and is clearly using flash. https://pro.magnumphotos.com/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult&ALID=2S5RYD12J76K
My son lives in Tokyo and with visiting there I know that there is a culture of deference to other people especially to visitors; I doubt that people would challenge intrusion even if extreme and overt. I could photography family members while asleep when they visit my home, under the ‘my house, my rules’ principle.
Walker Evans: If you are going to be covert disguise your equipment. I have used a Nikon D810 camera for street scenes but it has a plain black strap and the logos are all blacked out with tape. I tend to use a small black compact with inbuilt zoom which is discrete but allows portraits from a distance.
Philip-Lorca diCorcia: Shoots lots of images at one time. He shot 4,000 remote images but only selected 17 for the final series. His ‘Heads’ series was also really interesting from the point of litigation; one of the subjects tried to sue him for using their image. https://www.moma.org/learn/moma_learning/philip-lorca-dicorcia-head-10-2002https://www.moma.org/learn/moma_learning/philip-lorca-dicorcia-head-10-2002
Tom Woods: Builds up a relationship with people. He went from covert to overt in his photographing of Merseyside night club goers. http://www.anothermag.com/art-photography/7401/gareth-mcconnell-on-tom-wood-looking-for-looking-for-love
How can I photograph covertly? I think that extreme covert photography is an ethically dubious modus operandi for a photographer. We may celebrate photographers like Bruce Gilden but perhaps they are an anachroninisms in the 21st Century; his images are of time, place and person – and so am I.
Approach – intention and methods
I had a zoom on my compact camera and decided to try this our while travelling in the Netherlands for covert photography. This worked well as I could photograph from a 30 metres away and crop the portraits. This worked well and I used the same approach in ‘The Bullring’ shopping centre in Birmingham and other places nearby.
Selections – Gouda
Selections – Birmingham
The five portraits
My reflections on this exercise
I have already marked what I think about the practice of taking covert photographs in the sense that Bruce Gilden might take, but I am comfortable about the practice about taking photographs in public spaces – this is legitimate. My preference for taking photographs of people close up is like that of Tom Woods and try to engage the patient and find out something about them, but I would be unlikely to obtain the unobserved images that I have presented here. Being observed alters how people act and look at you and other people; these images can look false unless the person is at ease.
I think that my approach of choosing public places using a long lens to take images has been successful. I have captured people who are unaware of my presence.
I have invented name for the characters in my images. There is not enough time to say why I have chosen these names rather than other names except to say that these names are rooted in my past experiences and displaying a name signifies the person I know, could have been and identify with in some way. Naming is a powerful thing in images; note the work of Ryan McGinley where most people have a real or invented name such as ‘Jake, 2007, Cannes.’ The place-name can also have the same resonance for viewers.
‘Phil’ (Birmingham)’ stands out in my choices because his gaze is directed to me. He is engaged in a phone call but he sees that I am taking a photograph of him. Phil is the kind of guy who might confront me about what I am doing. ‘Michael. (Birmingham)’ looks at me or the balloons and there is a blurred person in the frame (very Francis Bacon) which I like. I thought about coping to show the blur man and Michael together but would lose the context. I shot through the balloon supports to show local context and took a few blur motion images to show action.
It think I am uncomfortable with the taking of these images as it is a short cut to taking a portrait of someone. I could take the same images if I followed Phil or any of the others for a day as they lived their life; they can’t fake it all the time.
Increasingly I am using a narrow depth of field to take images – this shows well in ‘Breda (Netherlands) but I could have done without the sun shade sticking out of her head which I could remove in PS.