Beware the camera, it comes to get you

Click to follow
The Independent Online
PHOTOGRAPHY is an intrusion, welcome or not. The very quality we value in a piece of photo-reportage is its intrusion upon private reality. Even where a photographer sets up a booth and invites sitters to photograph themselves, the interest of the results derives from an unplanned-for intrusion. The sitter reveals his fantasy self-image - by mistake.

Some people genuinely hate publicity. Others hate publicity they cannot entirely control. In these cases, the photographer may be invited to the inner sanctum to do his work. His plan may be to take the photograph the sitter least expected.

The famous case was Richard Avedon and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. They were used in their photographs to portraying serene old age and marital bliss. Avedon wanted something else. So he arrived late for the session, having sent his assistant ahead to set up the equipment. Then he made his appearance, flustered and apologetic. There had been an accident. A little dog had run across the road and had been knocked down.

As he told this story, Avedon was unobtrusively snapping away while pretending to be adjusting the equipment. Then he gave the impression of being ready to begin the portrait session - which produced exactly the kind of official shots, smiling and serene, that his sitters wanted. But the ones Avedon already had in the bag were the ones he wanted. The Windsors as they listened to the story of the poor little dog looked like the Windsors still in grief over the abdication, the Windsors who had given up everything for love and had suffered in consequence.

The Isleworth Incident, in which the Princess of Wales found that her control over publicity had slipped, has some of the same qualities. Those shots in the gym were stolen shots, of a kind which no one else was able to get and which were therefore at a premium. But the outrage that has ensued has nothing to do with the general question of intrusion. At issue, rather, is a gross breach of etiquette. The Princess is saying to the Mirror: You cannot do this to me. And the establishment nervously agrees with her.

If intrusion were truly the burning issue of the day, then we might hear more about those cases where the power relations are different, where the photographer is preying on the powerless. But the recent kerfuffle about privacy is concerned with the question: how are we to treat the powerful - royalty and politicians? What is the relation between the press and the superstar?

Etiquette says a princess in a private gym in Isleworth is entitled to absolute privacy. Etiquette says something rather different in the case of, say, a miner in a pithead shower. And etiquette says something different again in the case of a black South African miner in a pithead shower.

It would be bizarre, would it not, if a black South African miner got on a plane to Britain and made his way to the Press Complaints Commission office and collared Lord McGregor of Durris and said: 'Hey, I was having a shower when, without my knowledge or permission, this British photographer took my photograph in the nude, and has now published this photograph in a British newspaper. I am aware of the courageous stance you took over the Princess of Wales, but she was not in the nude. Would you mind making a public plea to advertisers to withdraw their trade from the newspaper in question?'

Then Lord McGregor would say: 'You are quite right. You have been treated disgracefully. Not only will I do as you say, but I will also see that the whole press is threatened with legislation to put an end to such intrusion. In the meantime would you like to consider some of the remedies available to you in common law?'

No, I do not quite see this. All over the world there are people who have a clear idea of how they would like to appear in photographs and how they would not like to. They want to be in their best clothes. They want their hair to be in order. They want to be in an appropriate pose or to be giving what they consider to be a good profile.

A whole aesthetic has grown out of the ability of the photographer to frustrate these desires and to present his subjects in precisely the way they would not like to be shown - not just dishevelled but distraught, not just in their worst clothes but in rags, showing their worst profile, showing their sores, showing everything to do with shame.

Is this an invasion of privacy, a breach of contract? A contract rarely comes into it. It might be, for instance, that a South African worker might welcome a particular photographer into a particular hut in the knowledge that he will be photographed and with the intention of publicising the poverty in which he lives. But this is a description of a particular case. In general, the relationship between photographer and subject is one of power. The press is more powerful than the poor, and therefore can generally do what it likes (unless the poor in question advertise their willingness to take revenge for an invasion of privacy, on the spot and without resort to the courts - by, for instance, stoning the photographer).

'But the photographer's work in the Third World is both honourable and necessary.' Is it? Or is it dishonourable and necessary? Or is there a high degree of nuance in the matter?

Many a picture editor will have had the experience of being shown a set of photographs (from a war, for instance) which calls into question the morality of the photographer. You look at them and think: this atrocity has been staged for the benefit of the camera. Such pictures lie at the extreme of both dishonourable and unnecessary.

At the other end lies work in which the witness to grief has been consciously invited to take the photographs. And between the two lies the majority of photo-reportage.

It is performed under conditions where permission cannot be sought or the event will have evaporated. It is an intrusion which the photographer knows to be such, but which he nevertheless feels justified in making. It leaves him with an aftertaste, perhaps, of self-disgust.

Many honourable photographers from this intrusive line of business decide after a while to give up. They go into something wildly different - group portraits of management teams, still lives, fashion. A part of the desire for change, no doubt, comes because they have had enough of danger. A part, to be sure, comes from the financial rewards of commercial photography. But behind it all lies a wish no longer to be an intruder, a violator of privacy or a purveyor of stolen property. As if all along they had felt there was something wrong with their trade and now they can take no more.