Thursday, June 02, 2011

Participant photography: Holding a protest sign with one hand, taking photographs with the other

This Is What Democracy Looks Like in Black and White
Photography can be a means of distancing yourself from people or of engaging with them. The Wisconsin protests favored the latter, especially for photographers like me who were part of the demonstrations themselves, sometimes photographing with one hand while holding a sign in the other.

The distancing is partly a matter of how equipment does or doesn't intrude. In traditional 35mm SLR and DSLR photography, a big camera blocks the photographer's face, and the photographer is further distanced by looking at the subject through the finder, rather than directly. When photographing people, this really distances the photographer and the subject. There are ways of working around it, but it's a real factor.

This Is What Democracy Looks Like in ColorAnother question is, do you go with color, or do you photograph in black and white (or more likely with digital cameras, convert to color). Perhaps because so many of the historic photojournalistic images were in black and white, it tends to have a more documentary feel for many people. Also, because B&W is more abstract, it can serve to highlight major issues without getting bogged down in the petty details of the here and now. On the other hand,nothing captures the feeling and immediacy of an event than color. Fortunately, with a digital camera, you don't have to lock in your decision until later.

Some ways of using a camera engage more with the subject than others. With a traditional DSLR the photographer can use a wide angle lens and simply point at the subject without having to hold the camera up to the eye. Cameras with LCD displays -- whether "live view" DSLRs, point-and-shoots, or cell phones -- offer another way. Use the LCD to frame the image, but after that, look your subject in the eye and press the shutter when the moment seems right.

There's also the question of how close the photographer gets to the subject. With a telephoto lens, the photographer can isolate a subject from far away, often throwing the background into a pleasing blur ("bokeh," as some photographers like to call it) that further isolates the subject. The word "isolate" is key. The other approach is to use a wide angle lens, which forces the photographer to get up close and personal. Nothing is isolated, everything is connected.

Again, there is no "right way" or "wrong way." The photographer's role as observer is different with the two approaches. The photographer's emotional experience is different as well. It's the difference -- sometimes subtle, sometimes dramatic -- between being a participant and a spectator, between being subjective and trying to remain "objective."

Increasingly I've been finding the iPhone a powerful tool for engaging directly with my subject (all the photos in this post were taken with the iPhone). Cell phone cameras don't have nearly the range of capabilities that dedicated cameras offer, but in good light, the iPhone 4 can deliver surprisingly good high-res photos. What they lack in technical sophistication, they more than make up for in intimacy and lack of intimidation. For most people, having a cell phone pointed at them is much less intimidating than a camera, and so they often act more naturally. That's why the NYT's Pulitzer Prize-winner Damon Winter has even used the iPhone in combat in Afghanista.

One thing's for sure: There won't be any lack of opportunities to combine protesting and photography in the days and weeks to come. A new Walkerville tent city is going up at the Capitol Saturday and will continue through the budget protest. On Monday there's a march to the Capitol from the Dayton Street fire station at 11:30am. And there will be more. See you there!

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