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Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Documenting vs experiencing

Spiegel Online features an article (German only) about yesterday's Non Photography Day. On their website the people behind it (according to Spiegel Online the photographer Becca Bland) explain the idea behind the day:

Non- photography day is an effort on my part to revive the moment by putting down the camera. It is a day to think about how life exists, in essence and not appearance and to understand the inadequacy of the photograph in describing this essence, to bring awareness of the perils of living through the view finder or the display screen…
Some thoughts about the issue: I have often thought about how seeing the world as a photographer changes your perception and your experience. I think it is important to keep these two levels apart: with respect to perception I see photography as a way to enhance the ways you see your environment. To have the photographic awareness, as it were, makes you turn your head around, not just look straight, it motivates you to look behind the corner, open that door, lie on the floor, walk behind the waterfall, or take the stairs instead of the elevator.

On the level of experience I somehow agree with Bland's criticism (though not with her essentialist, romanticist vernacular). The influence of taking photos usually becomes most apparent to me when I go to protests (or read about protests on indymedia) or on concerts. With the former you often get the impression that there are more people shooting pictures than people interested in the original purpose of the protest. While it is important to document police violence and to publish pictures of a rally that otherwise might not get any media attention, I often have the impression that "documenting" becomes an end in itself. And seeing yourself as the "documentalist" distances you from the protest and its aims.

On concerts -- usually hardcore shows in my case -- it seems similar. The tradition of documenting itself seems to be very widespread among subcultures. You have fanzines, people with large collections of video and audio bootlegs, and nowadays websites with often hundreds of pictures. Again: this is great and useful -- just consider what the great documentary about the rise of modern skateboarding in the 70s, Dogtown and Z-Boys. The plethora of Super-8 and other video material that they have been able to use is amazing and I suppose it had been mostly shot by the actors themselves. But when you try and be in the role of the person behind the photo or video camera or at the audio recorder yourself you quickly realize what a different experience it is than if you were in the moshpit: you have to protect your camera, you can't dance, band and audience become an object apart from you. This last point, in my opinion, points at something that the initiators of the Non-Photo-Day have failed to consider: not only is it the photographer on whom seeing herself in this role might have problematic aspects but also the objects of photography might influenced in ways that are not desirable. The awareness that you are being filmed, that pictures of you will soon be available to anyone on the internet certainly influences both your experience and behavior. In what direction is an open question -- maybe you want to be the "hero" of the documentary and burn that flag, make that audacious dance move that you practiced in front of the mirror, or be a first-time stagediver. But maybe you'll become inhibited, self-conscious, avoiding anything that might make you the center of attention of all those cam people.

So, my dear photographers: Continue to take your pics, on July 17 and the rest of the year! But think about what having a camera between you and others does to you and does to others. And know when it is time to put away the cam and jump off the stage, protect your fellow protesters, or just enjoy a marvelous scenery.

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