The previous posts reminds me of the story of the day I discovered I'm not a photojournalist. As an impoverished art student in the 1980s (before I became a powerful internet mogul, that is), I used to walk around D.C. with my camera strung around my neck. I was supposed to, which I loved. It was my "job" to out be taking pictures for school, so naturally I spent a lot of time doing just that. I had only one lens for my little Contax, a 35mm ƒ/2.8 Distagon, and I knew my lens and my camera like it was part of me. I could take pictures without thinking. Naturally I knew exactly what the lens "saw," that is, how much it took in—I didn't need to look through it to know what would be in any picture.
Maya Ying Lin's Viet Nam War Memorial was new at the time, and had been controversial. Lots of people at first felt it wasn't sufficiently monumental, or not sufficiently figurative, or just too "arty." Then, gradually, in what is almost a vindication story of the power of real art, people began to discover the Wall's surprising potential for great emotional impact. It was a place where veterans gathered, families came to see names, and friends came to visit the names of missing friends—or simply where people went to reflect on life and death and war and peace. People left notes and mementos, which I believe the Park Service respectfully collects and archives. It's just a surprisingly moving place. I visited it occasionally with my camera, in the course of my peregrinations around Washington.
Then, one day, one of those magical moment happened. It was the middle of a weekday and there were almost no people at the Wall. But as I entered from one end I became aware of a milling group ahead in the middle distance. A man was setting up a camera on a tripod. As I watched, an elderly gentleman was helped out of his wheelchair and walked to the Wall in the company of his wife. While this happened, the rest of what must have been a large extended family lined up to watch, in a big semi-circle. Many of them were crying, or had their hands to their mouths. As I watched, the two elderly people raised their hands and pointed to one name, obviously that of a dead son, and the man at the camera bent down to take their picture.
It was just one of those moments when the world resolves itself perfectly. The whole family had been on the far side of the man with the camera, so no one was standing in my way; and I was standing at the perfect distance for my lens to take in the whole scene—the Wall, the family, the two old people pointing, the empty wheelchair, the man bending down to record the moment; everything was presented to the camera as perfectly as if I had hired actors and staged it. It told a complete story. And I was in just the right position. I still feel that if I merely raised my camera and took just one shot, it would have run on the front page of the Washington Post the next day.
But I didn't take the picture. It just seemed wrong, somehow. I had stopped walking toward the group, and stood there waiting, out of that reflexive sense of politeness we all feel in not wanting to intrude on others. To start snapping pictures of the whole group of strangers seemed to me like it would have been presumptuous. It just felt to me like it wasn't my moment, is all. It was their moment, a private family moment, that just happened to be taking place out in public because that's where the Wall was.
The picture that arranged itself in front of me disappeared as quickly as it had appeared. The man took his record shot, the father was helped back to his wheelchair, the family which had lined up so perfectly atomized into smaller groups. The moment was gone, except from my memory. Too late, by then, to reconsider.
I admit that in years since, I've regretted my reaction. I do wish I'd taken that picture. But that was definitely the day that my ambitions to be a photojournalist ended. There are some things we are and some things we aren't; I'll never sky-dive, or do a bad audition on American Idol just to get on TV. It's just not who I am. And whatever else it does or doesn't take, photojournalism requires a burning drive to get the shot—you need to have a certain boldness, a higher loyalty to getting the picture than to acting with the utmost civility. It's just the name of that game. In the pinch, in the heat of that moment, when I was presented with maybe a 30-second window when I had to choose whether to shoot or act respectfully, it was more important for me to be respectful of that family's privacy. I didn't really plan it, and I can't really take it back. It's just who I am, I guess.
We never talk about these things—it's so much easier to discuss the corner resolution of a DSLR, and other things that really matter very, very little. But these are much more important issues, of course. A classmate of mine in school was obsessed with still life; I asked her about it once, and she said, "I'm shy with people, so I can't photograph them. Photographing objects is what's open to me." We all photograph not only the subjects that interest us, in the situations we find compelling, but also, we photograph in situations we happen to find comfortable to photograph, and amenable to whatever our personalities happen to be. And that's a matter of psychology, as much as art.