Jan 17, 2022

"Should you take that picture?"

I’ve been reading and viewing photography books over the last few weeks. One book published by Aperture, Photo No-No’s edited by Jason Fulford really got me thinking about issues around the practice, profession and pastime of photography. The subtitle is “Meditations on What Not to Photograph.” More than 200 contributors -- photographers, editors, museum curators, gallerists -- chimed in what they wouldn’t photograph. The comments are as short as a sentence or two and as long as a two-page formal essay.

The no-no’s include never taking photos of abandoned shopping carts, anyone who says, “Make Me Look Good,” beige, empty stairs, ghosts, people sick in the hospital, pregnant selfies, sewer grates, someone talking on a cell phone below a billboard of someone talking on a cell phone, roadkill, trash heaps and used-car lot flags. There is a mixture of serious and facetious commentary and confession -- so many confessed to having once, or often,  committed the photography “no-no.” 

It’s fun reading.

It’s now ten years since I traveled to India and Tibet. Many of the pictures I captured there are among the most colorful and exotic of the more than 150,000 images in my catalog. However, some of the images posed ethical challenges. I refrained from taking pictures of the crippled and the physically deformed. And there were plenty that we saw begging on the streets. In Varanasi we witnessed many cremations and grieving families. I did sneak a few photos because of the spectacle of fire and grief along the shore of the Ganges. The light from the funeral pyre was irresistible and the illuminated faces of grieving family members was a tableau made for a photographer. I still feel ambivalent about those pictures and I have never shown them to anyone. 

I went to a funeral here in the New York area in the pre-COVID era. The deceased was in an open casket. I noticed at least two people sneak smartphone pictures of his lifeless face. I imagined Weegee-type images of victims of street homicides, or like those wild west pictures of dead outlaws whose corpses were photographed to show that they were really dead.  Does anyone ever print and frame these shots and show them to visitors? “Oh, here is a photo of Uncle Bill in his casket! Doesn’t he look good?”

In Photo No-Nos there is a short recollection by Kyoko Hamada. (https://www.kyokohamada.com/about) While she was an art student in NYC, her father falls seriously ill in Japan. She makes several trips to see him during his terminal illness but she struggles over whether she should photograph him in the hospital during the last months of his life. After her visits she would walk the surrounding neighborhood taking street photos. On one occasion she saw an unconscious man lying on the sidewalk and a few police officers and thought it would make for an interesting picture. She hesitated considering the scene and the man’s situation and walked past. But after a few steps, she reconsiders and walks back, steels herself and clicks the shutter.  At that moment she hears someone quietly say, “There’s a photograph to take and there’s a photograph not to take. Which one do you think this is?”

He suggests that she take a few photos of him instead. After all, he says that he’s much better looking than that poor soul who has fallen unconscious on the sidewalk. She takes a few street portraits and then moves on. However, she’s left to wonder what this man would say about taking a photograph of her dying father in a hospital bed plugged in to monitoring devices with oxygen and drainage tubes coming out of his body. 

“There’s a photograph to take and there’s a photograph not to take. Which one do you think this is?”

If you’re a serious photographer or a photo enthusiast, this book will make you think about the pictures you take or the ones you view at a gallery or museum. 


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