New Story: “My Guilt-Inducing, Nausea-Provoking Street Photography Obsession”

I have a new story up on about street photography, travel photography, and the French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson.

Here’s the first few paragraphs:

“The guard approached and asked me nicely, in Spanish, to come with him. He led me to a man who I assumed was his boss, a man in business clothes, not a uniform, standing on a Bogotá street. With my camera wedged in my front right pocket, I held my hands out slightly, my palms forward, in an I’m-not-a-threat gesture. He didn’t speak much, if any, English, and I know very little Spanish, but what he wanted to know was clear: Why was I taking so many photographs? In Spanish, I said I was an American tourist. (That must have been a shocker.) I handed him my camera, and he looked through the photos, unhurriedly.

“What he saw in my camera were dozens of photos of the changing of the presidential guard, which my guidebook had noted would happen at 4 o’clock on Friday, not far from the expansive and pigeon-filled Plaza de Bolivar. And so I had scurried over there, camera at the ready, thinking that although it was a touristy thing to do, it might yield some good photos. I had taken lots of photographs—not because I felt the need to capture every moment, but because I knew that the more I took, the likelier I was to get one or two good shots. I had snapped a photo, with permission, of two guards standing on a corner, one in a blue and gold dress uniform, the other in a more practical dark green uniform, a machine gun slung around his shoulders and his pants tucked into his black boots. I had taken photos of soldiers—members of the Batallón Guardia Presidencial—lining up, drilling and marching: some of them in funny red and blue uniforms, white gloves, and tall hats with flat tops. When another group of soldiers in blue dress uniforms marched down the street, I had followed along, loving the intensity of the moment: the rhythmic pounding of their boots on the ground, the patterns of the guns and uniforms, the order and military drama. I had taken a few shots, with permission, of guards standing in front of a big, black, ornate gate affixed with two golden seals. Was it the gate to the presidential compound?

“After a minute or two of questioning and further study, I was free to go. It was just a quick conference on the street, and I hadn’t done anything wrong, but the moment was enough to rattle me. As I walked away, and for the next few hours, I felt nauseated and embarrassed and upset with myself. I think I had taken one photo too many. Why had I pushed it? Why was I obsessed with trying to get the perfect shot? And what makes a great travel shot, anyway?

“Something happens when I travel and take pictures, and it’s related to a feedback loop that’s both good and bad. The more photos I take, the more I start thinking in images, and that leads to more picture taking. At its core, this obsession can be a good thing, because it leads to better, more artistic photos. But for me, street photography can be emotionally complicated. Because I love it, and because it brings me satisfaction when it goes well, I continue to do it. But in a lot of places, it’s not a brilliant idea to flash a camera. Also, the more I do it, the guiltier I feel. Not always, but sometimes. In developing countries especially, the more I hold my camera to my eye, the more I feel like the ugly tourist, the man from a wealthy country working to capture a piece of a poorer one—or, more accurately, working to try to capture something beautiful, or some sense of emotion or feeling tied to how I see the place. I ask permission when it’s easy to do so, but sometimes, I don’t. Maybe it’s not just the power difference that bothers me, because I’ll take photos anywhere that’s interesting to me, including my home turf. Maybe it’s just that snapping a photo of someone without asking can be rude, or voyeuristic. My guess is that I’m not the only traveler with a camera and a heightened sensitivity who has snapped a shot or six and then felt a twinge of guilt.”

Click here to continue reading.