I was certainly noticed here. Apparently in the middle of a high-stakes gambling game, seconds later I was shouted at by about forty people and chased away. Invisibility would have certainly made for an interesting documentary series.
Here’s an interesting concept: photographic invisibility. By this, I mean the ability to take a photograph of anything, anywhere, or anybody, without being noticed. Nothing would be off limits, nowhere would be inaccessible, and everything you see would be just a shutter-click away. Assume for a moment, technical limitations don’t really apply – we don’t have to worry about image quality or low light or too much or too little depth of field, or buffers or file handling or curating the enormous mountain of images that would be the product of such an exercise. Of course, this is impossible – or nearly impossible unless the subject is heavily distracted, or you’re a photojournalist or street photography ninja – but stay with me for a while.
In a much earlier article, I covered the observation vs participation paradox. In short, the story contained in an image changes dramatically depending on whether you’re an active participant in the scene or not; and this is a conscious choice that has to be made by every photographer of people at some point or other – often on a frame by frame, or at very least set-by-set basis. There is no right or wrong answer here: it depends on what you’re trying to achieve with your image. Regardless of the choice, there are compositional techniques that can be used to give either impression, whether you’re part of the action or not – I touch on this briefly in my article on cinematic photography.
Putting all voyeuristic thoughts aside, is invisibility a good or bad thing? This is not as simple a question as it may seem at first. A lot of photographs work precisely because of the interaction between subject and photographer/ camera, and thus in turn subject and viewer. It’s a simple consequence of human physiology and psychology that we communicate with other people through the eyes; we express interest in someone or something by looking, and a conversation with somebody who’s holding eye contact is perceived as much more intense and sincere than one with a person who never looks at you. Arguably, documentary work is most powerful when there’s a direct connection between subject and photographer; Steve McCurry’s Afghan Girl wouldn’t be anywhere near as powerful a portrait if she weren’t staring straight at the viewer with those mesmerising eyes. For that image to work, she had to know the camera was there, and be a conscious participant in the making of the image.
I’d like to think of invisibility for the moment as a liberator of creativity. You could give the point of view of a participant – think getting in and wide – without the change in behaviour that would be accompanied if you were actually noticed sticking a lens in the thick of things. I can think of an immense number of situations where a fly-on-the-wall documentary style might be extremely engaging and different; aside from situations unsafe for human presence (the inside of an internal combustion engine, for instance):
- Meetings of heads of state: what really goes through the minds of these people? Are their poker faces really that straight?
- Conflict, war and fights: admittedly, most of the time the participants are absorbed enough in the intensity of their own worlds that they don’t really notice photographers anyway
- Actors when they’re not acting: what are they really like as individuals? Even those ‘candid’ images published in magazine and tabloid features are undoubtedly posed as they know the images are going to be used for something.
- One’s own children, when the parents aren’t around: not having children, and certainly even if I did, I wouldn’t be able to photograph them without them being at least peripherally aware of it – I’d be curious to see what they did. Especially when younger.
- Private moments of emotion, out of the public eye: triumphs, failures, happiness, pain.
We’re actually not as far off as you might think. While projects like Google Glass and other similar eyewear-based recorders (still and video) are still conspicuous enough that you’d never get away with using one completely incognito, earlier cameras like the Minox 8x11s were made for just such a purpose. The compromise was always image quality: small means small format which meant – until fairly recently, not really good enough for any serious work. We do have good small sensors now – by which I mean sufficient for 13×19″ and larger prints at high quality – and optics to match; in fact, the camera modules in most mobile phones meet this requirement. The phones themselves have become sufficiently ubiquitous that using a cameraphone in a moderately stealthy way doesn’t attract any attention and one is effectively transparent to some extent.
Perhaps one of the reasons why the GoPro and other similar cameras have experienced such success is because they let us go and observe where it would normally be impossible to do so; the results are not so much voyeuristic (though I’m sure some can be found if one looks hard enough) as incredibly stimulating to the imagination and limited only by how creative you can get with suction cups and clamps. I admit I’d love to try one, but the thing stopping me from buying one is that I’d have no idea what I’d do with it – not being an adventure sportster, but I’ve ordered one to play around with anyway.
Given the limitations of photographic control for most of these things, I’d like to take a diversion to recommend a few of the other (admittedly slightly less stealthy) options I’ve come across and enjoyed for this kind of documentary photography: most of them are small enough to not be easily noticeable, but powerful enough to offer satisfying output and a range of individual strengths (though sadly, no one camera does it all). Needless to say, they’re all a very stealthy black. MT
The Jack of All Focal Lengths: Canon 520 HS. (B&H, Amazon) Incredibly tiny, with an optical 28-330mm zoom. Use only at base ISO, though. Bought on a whim during an Amazon sale, and turned out to be surprisingly handy. Almost always rides in a pocket or my bag.
The Wide Angle Masters: Ricoh GR (review, B&H, Amazon) and Nikon Coolpix A (review, B&H, Amazon) Image quality is superb on these APS-C-sensored 28mm equivalents. Some of you may remember my dilemma: I bought the Ricoh in the end.
For telephoto and DOF control: Olympus E-PL5 (review, B&H, Amazon) and ZD 45/1.8 (review, B&H, Amazon). Relatively bargain price, excellent sensor, tilt screen and a compact 90mm equivalent make it great for waist-level shooting. The optics of the 45mm are no slouch, either.
For the cool geek factor: Google Glass (sorry, currently unavailable to buy, but you can sign up here) – I had the chance to play with one at Google during my San Francisco trip; all I can say is forget the rest, this thing would make an awesome camera device. It does raise serious concerns over privacy and liability; that said, it’s pretty darn obvious if you’re wearing one of these…
Enter the 2013 Maybank Photo Awards here – there’s US$35,000 worth of prizes up for grabs, it’s open to all ASEAN residents, and I’m the head judge! Entries close 31 October 2013.
Visit the Teaching Store to up your photographic game – including workshop and Photoshop Workflow videos and the customized Email School of Photography; or go mobile with the Photography Compendium for iPad. You can also get your gear from B&H and Amazon. Prices are the same as normal, however a small portion of your purchase value is referred back to me. Thanks!
Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved