Saturday, November 14, 2009
When I first started taking pictures I avoided photographing people. My mom always asked why I never took any pictures of people. I think it was for a number of reasons, although it was not necessarily intentional.
I began getting serious with photography when I was living for short periods of time in strange cities all over the U.S. Starting anew every few months does not lend itself to lots of company, so that ruled out photographing the people I was spending time with, for there were none. Then there was the issue of taking candid photographs of strangers.
The problem here is two-fold. I did not want to be intrusive and did not have enough money to get a decent telephoto lens to shoot from a distance. I certainly did not want to approach people and ask permission, not that I am at all shy about doing this. Once the person knows they are being photographed, it all changes for the worse. A photograph then becomes a snapshot. It appears staged and true emotions are masked by an artificial smile.
Lastly, in my spare time, I generally like to get into the outdoors away from people and such was the case in the beginning. In those days I spent 40 hours a week surrounded by strangers in various states of infirmity, dealing with their problems inside the confines of hospitals with all manner of smells and noises associated with the treatment of said infirmities. Needless to say, I was in need of a little fresh air, away from people. My photography hobby was secondary to wandering in the wilds hobby. Most of my photos were landscapes and such; the lack of a good telephoto lens also limited good wildlife photography (and still does to this day).
So, I have gradually become a photographer of people and, I must admit, I wish I had gone this route long ago. If nothing else, I would be better at it by now. So what is it about taking candid photographs of unsuspecting people that is appealing? For me there are two things. One is capturing the shot. The good ones are always fleeting moments that are easily missed, the proverbial one that got away. So, shooting people with a camera is a little like hunting and fishing. There is a bit of a rush when you capture something really special and of good quality, because it is a bit of a rarity.
Secondly, there is something special about pictures of people, even strangers, we can all relate to as humans. A picture of another human being automatically triggers an emotional response, where as the most beautiful vistas, for example, usually do not. Most humans have some ability to empathize, save the sociopaths among us. We truly see a human when we see a good photograph of one, while a photograph of most other things is simply a photograph.
While my life and job have changed drastically since I began taking pictures, I visit many strange cities and I am crammed among the masses on a regular basis. My desire to avoid people in my downtime has not waned, in fact, it is probably greater than ever. Only now I live in NJ, were avoiding people is close to impossible and my downtime is in such short supply, that I rarely get into the wilds anymore. So I have taken the opportunity to pursue my hobby on my work trips to large crowded cities, cities full of people.
Hong Kong is one of those places and I had the opportunity to go there recently. So, I went out in search of adventure in Hong Kong, from the big Buddha in the mountains of Nong Ping to the Temple Street Night Market in Kowloon. While I always bring my camera on such trips, I was not going on a photographic mission. Actually the only thing I really had in mind was finding some good local eats and something cool to buy at the Jade Market. Besides, I was accompanied by three non-photographers. People who are not photographers tend to have little patience for those who spend lots of time in one spot taking pictures of seemingly ordinary things.
However, I decided immediately that this was the place to photograph people. I noticed here that people are actually doing things in plain view on the streets. For the most part, in western cities, most of the people you see on the street are in transit from point A to point B, very little else is going on. In the East all manner of activities can be seen on the street-food preparation, business transactions, arguments, dining and various forms of revelry and tomfoolery. Also, the age demographics span the spectrum, day and night. It is not unusual to see small children and the elderly on the streets at night. You rarely see either, anytime of day in cities in Europe and the United States. Also, to a photographer, light is important and sometime it is light itself that is the target of the camera. For this, the streets of nighttime Hong Kong are also perfect. The volume, brilliance and variety of neon signs can seldom be fully captured with a camera but it is fun trying.
So, what do I have to show for it besides a few decent pictures and many more reminding me that I am new to the people pictures thing? Well, I think a have been reminded that, as much as I am annoyed by stupid ones, hate crowds of them and long for days in the woods or on the water with a select few of them, people are special and interesting. And pictures of people are special and interesting. I think I will try to get better at it.