Observing vs. participating: behind the camera

Today’s post is a follow-on spurred by the discussion following yesterday’s article on hiding behind the subject. Apologies to anybody if I lose you in the second paragraph, but I promise it will be worth it.

A camera can be many things.

A tool, to produce an image.

A bridge, to start a conversation.

An observer, to record an event, or bear witness to something.

A shield, to distance and separate the photographer from the scene he or she is attempting to capture.

There’s a big difference between being part of the action, and just being a witness to the action. Which do you think makes for stronger images? Unquestionably, the former. However, it’s not that simple: photojournalism is like quantum mechanics.

Let’s take a little detour. Quantum mechanics 101: under the quantum mechanical realm – i.e. the very small – an observable event has no distinct state, but rather a continuum of probability. This means that there’s the potential for any possible outcome to our observable event; however, until we observe it, we don’t know what the outcome will be. However, the very act of observing the event changes the outcome – because once the outcome has been observed, it can no longer be any of the other possible outcomes. This changes the probability continuum for the event, thus changing the event itself.

The best example of this is Erwin Schrodinger’s (the famous physicist) cat experiment. A box contains a live cat, whose lid triggers a mechanism that <em>might</em> kill the cat. So until you open the lid of the box, you don’t know if the cat is dead or alive; by observing the cat, you interfere with its state of being: namely, you might kill it by checking if it’s really alive or not.

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A demonstration of the link between quantum mechanics and photography. Behaviour of the person in the middle didn’t change until he saw me bring the camera up.
New year’s eve 2011-12, Kuala Lumpur. Olympus Pen Mini E-PM1, 12/2

Back to photography. As a photojournalist, if you are an observer, you do not generally interfere with the course of events – other than any secondary impact arising from people viewing your images, and possibly taking action or interfering with the course of history. However, if you are a participant rather than an observer – then by taking photographs, you are directly interfering with the event. From a photographic point of view, it means that the images you get may be more powerful, but not necessarily as genuine because the subjects are aware of the camera and will almost certainly change their behavior accordingly, which again changes the image and changes the course of events because the subjects change the way they act around the camera. As a stealth operative, you will capture the natural reactions of your subjects – but at the expense of involvement for the viewing audience.

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Active participation at a family event. Olympus Pen Mini E-PM1, 12/2

They’re very different types of images, and both have their advantages and disadvantages – to say nothing of the ethical dilemmas posed for a photojournalist when covering certain events, for instance wars and natural disasters. I can’t say whether one is better than the other, but I do know that it’s much more difficult to get powerful images if you are not a participant – simply because the focus of the subject is not the camera.

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Passive observer. Epicure 2011. Nikon D700, 85/1.4G

I’ve always felt the best compromise is to be an observer, but an active one: anticipate and seek out your targets; study behavior and be ready for what comes next, so when that one fleeting moment of critical action – what HC-B memorably termed ‘the decisive moment’ – you are ready, and manage to capture it.

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The kiss, hommage a HC-B. London. Leica M8, Zeiss ZM2.8/21.

Required a lot of anticipation because a) the M8 is manual focus; b) you have to shoot wide open in the low light conditions of the Underground; c) here’s the kicker: they were on an escalator moving in the opposite direction to me, so there was really only one chance to get the shot.

There are times when you should not be a passive observer. In intimate social situations, for example – hiding behind your camera would just come across as awkward, antisocial and downright rude. Portraiture is another example. People naturally connect and express emotion more easily when there’s another human on the receiving end, rather than an enormous and intimidating piece of glass attached to a big black camera.

Perhaps this is why smaller cameras such as the compact system cameras and rangefinders are seeing a modern resurgence (aside from the obvious size and weight benefits) – they remove a layer between you and your subject in a couple of ways. Firstly, if you’re interacting with your subject, they can see your face; body language is the vast majority of communication, and your subject will take visual cues from you. If you’re not interacting with your subject, smaller cameras attract a lot less attention, and let you shoot without the subject being conscious of your presence. I have no problem shooting in very close quarters with a good point and shoot or mirrorless camera – the Ricoh GR-Digital III and Olympus Pen Mini are my favorites because of size and responsiveness – and to a lesser extent, the Leica M9-P. The full-sized Nikons are a no-no (especially anything with a battery grip or large aperture lens) unless you’re in a public situation where the expectation is a lot of people will have cameras and be taking photos.

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Never a problem finding a protest if you’re shooting a Leica. Just look like you’re a world-weary photojournalist and you’d be surprised how many ‘official’ lines you can get past. Leica M8, Voigtlander 50/1.1 Nokton

Speaking of expectations, this should be a good guide to what equipment and technique is best suited to get the best images: if you’re expected to look and play the part of a photographer – a fashion shoot, for instance – using a small camera so the model can see your face probably isn’t going to get you the results you desire. If you’re trying to be stealthy and cover an insurgent protest, then a point and shoot probably is a good idea to help you keep a low profile. Street photography is something else that’s best done with compacts, too. Bottom line: take your cue from your subjects.

One final word: if you are not comfortable, then it will show in your body language. Remember, most communication is nonverbal: this means you’re also going to make your subjects aware of your discomfort (and probably also make them feel uncomfortable with the situation). Most important tip: be confident, regardless of whatever your equipment choice, and however you chose to shoot. Photographers create images: appearing the part is a very important piece of the puzzle. MT


  1. This is exactly what brought me into the small mirrorless cameras – small size and inconspicuousness. Most of the micro four thirds cameras for instance look like point and shoots, which feels great for me. As my main interest is towards street and travel photography with a strong emphasis on people, documenting daily life and ways of living, I can approach people without threatening or raising questions about “why” I’m photographing. Very liberating. Not to mention the size and weight advantage, which actually gives more photo opportunities, because I’m more likely to have the camera with me at all times.

  2. Hi Ming,

    I just came across your Blog by accident.

    Firstly, congratulations, it makes excellent reading.

    Secondly, your ‘Kiss’ photo (fabulous picture by the way!) more resembles Robert Doisneau’s ‘Le baiser de l’hôtel de ville’, rather than that street café shot of C-B’s, with the dog under the table. That makes for an interesting discussion because Doisneau’s picture was actually posed (he saw the couple kissing and asked them to do it again for him, a fact that wasn’t known until many years later when another couple tried to sue him, arguing that it was them whom he’d photographed. At that point Doisneau had to admit to the ‘Decisive Moment deception’).

    Incidentally, my own view is that Cartier-Bresson’s photo was also probably posed. None of this, however, spoils my great admiration for both Doisneau and Cartier-Bresson who are two of my photographer heroes.

    Best wishes


    • Thank you Pete! Good to see that a) Google works and b) there are plenty of people who enjoy my work. Please visit regularly, I update daily!

      Interesting thought on the ‘kiss’ photo – it definitely wasn’t posed, they were coming towards me on the opposite escalator and I had perhaps two or three seconds to react and get the image. I guess subconsciously I was inspired by Doisneau’s image, though for some odd reason I always thought it was a HC-B. Moral of the story though: don’t claim something is something it isn’t, especially if you’re a photojournalist!

      I actually think it was a lot easier in those days to get random subjects to pose/ re-enact scenes for you – these days, I don’t think people have time and there’s definitely no feeling of novelty in being photographed by a stranger – probably more like suspicion and invasion of privacy. But yes, it doesn’t change the fact that both Doisneau and HC-B were masters.


  3. Reblogged this on Muutoksen syke – Pulse of Change and commented:
    Read this excellent consideration about the role a photographer can take.

  4. Excellent analysis! Just what I liked to see from you. The last tip is what I like most: be confident. Are you either observed or participant, that doesn’t really matter, if you just are sure in what you are doing.

    I hope you didn’t mind my reblogging 🙂


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