The purpose of this exercise was to shoot a series of five portraits of subjects who are unaware of the fact they are being photographed, having examined other practitioners working with covert images. My study of other photographers on ‘the unaware’ is posted here. There is a strong psychological aspect at work for the photographer in this type of work – the fear of being caught-out, taking something without permission, with the potential for confrontation. This addresses our inherent territorial instincts, so it is something that the majority of people will feel nervous about to some extent. There is something predatory in the behaviour; which explains why personalities like Bruce Gilden feel comfortable, or even enjoy this approach to photography.
I chose to shoot two separate sets of photos using different approaches to record different experiences. Set 1) is similar in psychological approach to Martin Parr’s Japonais Endormis in that the subjects could not be aware that they were being photographed since I was photographing from a balcony above a street out of their line of sight; only one person looked up during the 200 plus shots I took. Set 2) is more akin to Walker Evans’s approach transported to a modern-day environment; cameras are pervasive so there was no need to hide the tool (in itself, it no longer attracts attention), so I simply held the camera to my chest with a wide-angle lens and chose the moment to fire the shutter.
The technical approach to both sets was similar. I used a Fuji X100T, which is relatively small and unobtrusive; because of its retro appearance many people just assume it is an old camera and take little notice of it – no risk of inducing visions paparazzi in subjects as there might be with a DSLR. For both sets the camera was used in full manual mode – with reasonably constant light conditions, exposure was set to optimise depth of field (middling for set 1) and high for set 2)); focus was set to manual (on a point for set 1) and to hyper-focal for set 2)). This both speed the response time of the camera and allows me to focus only on releasing the shutter at the chosen moment.
This is a spy-like or CCTV approach with no interaction with the subjects whatsoever. It focuses on people passing through the same square of ground. As anticipated, I did not find this approach appealed to my relatively gregarious personality. What was of some interest were the patterns of life in the small square of ground – mostly drab clothes that blended with the paving stones, with few people standing out; the care to avoid bumps with others; the various body-shapes speeds of movement. The distance allows perception of general types, without the distraction of details of individualism.
I enjoyed this set much more – observing people close-up and a buzz from the element of risk involved. Though taking the images covertly, without engagement is again something that does not appeal to me. I prefer a candid but open approach, to make a connection with my subjects.
Putting aside personal preferences for engaging with subjects, it is clear that covert photography serves the purpose of observing behaviour that is not posed for the camera. Not necessarily unposed behaviour as it is clear that there is some social posturing within groups of individuals; I was particularly taken by the gazes in the last shot!