Let’s consider the two quotes below, from Mary Ellen Mark and Garry Winogrand - two of my greatest photography influences.
First of, Mary Ellen encourages us to be honest with the subject and up-front about what we are doing and why we are doing it. Fair enough, surely that’s just good manners. But the hidden question here is: do we always know what it is we’re really after, and why we’re doing it? Because if we can’t honestly answer that to ourselves, then why are we insisting ourselves into someone else’s life?
Taking a photograph is - well, taking. You are asking something of someone that is one of their most private possessions - you are asking (or maybe you’re not even asking) that you can take away a likeness of them for yourself. Now without getting too uptight and serious about all that, maybe we can apply the old switcheroony - how would you feel if the situations were reversed and it was your likeness being taken? I think if it were me, I would like to think that the asker could, if queried, be completely honest about what it is they’re interested in about me to cause them to want a photograph. Of course there is a very positive side to this soul-taking business too - as when we keep a photograph of a loved-one with us in a frame or in our wallet. Then they are never far away, at least from our thoughts.
Let’s then move onto Garry Winogrand’s statement that putting a frame around a subject changes the facts of the matter. This is obviously about selectivity. Of all the rich myriad of things going on in any given time or place, you the photographer chooses one viewpoint and a finite subset of everything to be the components of your picture. So immediately you have isolated something to be elevated to the level of a picture and excluded everything else that was going on around. This confers a status to the chosen subject not accorded the rest.
Changing facts? You bet. Consider the evening TV news. If there is no vision of something, unless it is really remarkable, then it probably won’t make the evening news. Conversely, where there is vision, even if it’s not necessarily newsworthy, it is often shown. Go figure. Putting the frame around it in this case allows the editing room to decide what is newsworthy, almost exclusively only from those stories that have frames around them.
By putting a frame around something we either confer importance or consign to the dustbin of irrelevance - we thereby manipulate (change) facts. And with people, just by the act of photographing someone we take something of them away for ourselves.
In photography, as in life, being honest, aware and up-front leads to quite different outcomes than pretending or bluffing our way through.