By John Kennerdell
From Karsh snatching the cigar out of Churchill's mouth to Jill Greenberg taking candy from babies, provocation has played a long and not very noble role in photography. No one disputes how effective it can be—witness Avedon's photo of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor the moment he told them his dog had been killed—but ultimately isn't it a pretty cheap trick? Don't we photographers suffer a bad enough rep as is?
Try though as you might to be a fly on the wall, sometimes you can't help but upset a subject. That's how it happened one day last month in rural Cambodia when three children ran up to me with their puppy. He was sick, they said. Could I do something? Please?
There are no vets in places like this, and a westerner operating some high-tech photo gear probably looked more competent to help than anyone else around. But I had to be honest with them. "No," I said, in my broken Khmer, "I can't help." Then, reflexively, I raised my camera to capture the reaction.
Well, an Avedon I'm not. I got the shot but the kids just stood there looking heartbroken. I swear, even the pup had a tear in its eye. So I did something I almost never do. I pulled out a couple of small bills and handed them over, muttering something about buying milk for the dog.
That would have been the end of it, had I not happened by the same place the next day. There they were, kids and puppy, playing as happily and healthily as kids and puppies ever played. Even before they saw me and started laughing, I realized that…well, let's say I have a new respect for the curative powers of milk. And from now on, I'm provoking any child any time I like.
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