By John Kennerdell
So how does a person who is "shy, non-confrontational, and overly considerate of others"—Mike's words but no doubt they describe quite a few of us—reconcile those things with a commitment to street photography? It's a contradiction I've wrestled with for years.
It came up again last week, finding these Vietnamese fishermen playing poker by the Tonle Sap, Cambodia's inland sea. One glance into their hut as I walked past and I saw the shot immediately: the light reflecting in off the water, the angles of the arms and legs, the white accent of the cards, even a cigarette lighter improbably held between the toes of an upraised foot. Unfortunately I also saw three pairs of eyes glaring at me, all of them seeming to say: Keep on walking.
I kept walking. Another five or ten steps until I thought, no, this is what I'm here for. This is what I do. Having seen so much of traditional life in Southeast Asia disappear in the past couple decades, I take my job to be documenting whatever I can find that's left of it. Whether due to shyness, laziness, or procrastination, I've already missed way too much. And a few years from now, when fellows like these will have traded their bamboo huts and playing cards for Starbucks and games on their 4G iPhones, I will have missed this too.
So I walked back, poked my camera in, and gave it my best shot. One of the guys looked bemused, one indifferent, and one hostile enough that it didn't take much imagination to see my camera flying over the rail to go sleep with the fishes of the Tonle Sap. Times like this you understand why even Bruce Gilden snaps only one frame per subject. Exit camera right, wishing them, and all of you at TOP, a good new year: Sua sdey chnam tmey!
Featured Comment by Damon Schreiber: "What a dynamic shot—this is a fantastic example of street-shooting—it shows context, tells a story and is a moment recorded in time that otherwise would have been lost. It also has the feeling of an encounter, with their eyes probing the camera and by extension, the viewer. Did the camera make them feel uncomfortable? Sounds like it. Am I complicit in an assault by enjoying the photo? Are they going to get in trouble with their wives for playing cards instead of working? Hey, I don't have all the answers!"
Featured Comment by Improbable: "Curious to see whether all those who thought Bruce Gilden was entirely out of line will complain as loudly about this. The way I see it, if you're walking around in NYC you know you're in public, and unless you're homeless you spend time out of public sight too. And in NYC plenty of people are rude to you, it's how the place works, and Gilden is not much more rude. People curse him, he curses back, it's not that far from level. Whereas this sort of thing, in the Third World: this is their lives, this is how much privacy they can afford. And there is often quite a lot of respect for privacy, people don't stare at others who bathe in public. But as a westerner, you're free to walk around and poke your nose in wherever you like, and your high status means people don't actually object until it's pretty extreme. This is not to say that you can't do street work in the Third World, clearly you can. And there is often a lot more going on genuinely in public. But this to me has crossed the line into poking into what should be private. I think this only because of the back-story given, by the way. From the picture alone, it could be from a more documentary approach, in which you obtain some kind of consent from the people you're portraying. And I would have no problem with that. But that's not street."
Featured Comment by Kenneth Jarecke: "I like this image.
"It is a great start...yes, I think there was a better image to be made there, but still this is pretty good.
"I think John could have played his cards a little better (get it, cards, guys playing cards?...oh, never mind) and walked away with an image and story that would have pleased the majority of readers here.
"Here's the deal when it comes to privacy and the butterflies and all of the issues involved with the shooting of strangers:
"Everyone in the entire world over the age of two and of normal intelligences knows exactly what you are doing and what you want when you stroll by with your camera.
"I mean every single one. People aren't dumb. They get it. You might not be able to buy a Domke bag in the U.S.A. but you can buy one by a dozen different makers in Asia.
"The Domke, the Leica, and any reasonable facsimile of the two will get you pegged as a photographer looking to make pictures.
"Chances are, you're never going to get a beating. Chances are you're going to have a dozen great and positive experiences to every negative one.
"Think back to how you felt when a stranger came into your second grade classroom for the day. I'm guessing at some point you wanted the stranger to look at your work, or acknowledge you in some way.
"This is a rough example I know, but to a certain degree the same holds true in the adult world wherever you go today. Of course the trick is communicating in a nonverbal way your intentions.
"How you walk, your posture, where you look, how you hold your camera and where you don't look all contribute to how your presences is received on the street.
"By being there you've disrupted the dance, so are you going to swing to the tune or start stepping on toes? That's the question.
"I think some of the complaints about Bruce's approach is that people think he should be swinging instead of stepping on toes, when in reality his approach seems to work just fine for him in the New York City street dance.
"Certainly the work he produces justifies the approach. I wouldn't recommend this technique in Billings, Montana, by the way. Chances are you would catch a beating.
"The worst thing you can do, at least the one you won't soon forget, is the potential images you passed up. Once you do that, it is easy to start telling yourself that the situation wouldn't have panned out, or the light wasn't really that good, when in fact, you've missed it and you'll never get it again.
"I think that anger is what we are seeing expressed in a hostile attitude masked with the concern for the privacy of the common man and whatnot here.
"Something like: I couldn't do that myself, so how dare you violate the privacy of these poor helpless souls?
"I think that's a form of latent western arrogance that believes that people that live in grass huts or don't have a car can't possibly understand how they are being abused by having someone make their picture (or make their feelings known).
"Given the situation that John was in I would have done something like this: With my camera in my right hand, I would have slipped halfway through the door and sat on my left hip. Give a slight nod and half smile to all three guys, lay the camera on my lap and then bum a smoke with a gesture from my right hand.
"If you get the smoke you're in. Perhaps, you'll be able to leave in ten minutes after you've thoroughly worked the situation; chances are, you'll be drinking tea and visiting someone's dad before long.
"I'm not joking, that's exactly how I would have worked it. I would have had a chance to work the light with an 85, not just the wide, and not just for one frame.
"How do you think it would have worked if you were on assignment for National Geographic? Do you think an editor from D.C. would have arranged the shoot over the phone so you'd be comfortable and welcome?
"One way or another this is what photographers do.
"Yeah, photographs might not tell a story, but they sure get the conversation started!"