In photography, the words and metaphors we use are profoundly disturbing. We “shoot”or “take” a photo. We aim our camera. The language of photography is predominately aggressive, predatory, acquisitive, imperialistic.
This militaristic image is reflected in the design and marketing of equipment. Cameras with their protruding lenses often look like weapons and are often designed to put front of our faces like masks or guns. And they are advertised this way. A famous lens manufacturer announces that its “new snub-nosed zoom shoots to kill.” An ad for a photo lab has a cowboy holding a camera like a gun against a western sky with a “wanted” poster on the wall behind him. A store for professional photographers advertises that the company is “responsible for over 2,876,431 shootings.” It touts its “arsenal” of equipment and promises that its service will “blow you away.” We call our compacts “point-and-shoot” cameras.
The way we actually photograph, unfortunately, frequently reinforces this image of photographer-as-aggressor. Often we approach photography like a hunt, stealing photos without the consent of the subject and collecting images like trophies. We steal photos with a telephoto lens without the subject’s consent. We use the camera to avoid interacting with our subjects. We treat the photos as commodities with no input from the subjects about how they are portrayed, how the image is edited or where it is used.
Is it any surprise, then, that subjects feel violated and that photos so often divide and degrade?
Fortunately, there is an alternative way to approach photography.
When we photograph, we do not actually reach out and take anything. Rather, we receive an image that is reflected from the subject. Instead of understanding photography as taking, we can envision it as receiving. Instead of a trophy that is hunted, an image is a gift.
In reality, photography is a matter of opening ourselves to receiving. Such photography means cultivating a attitude of receptivity, an openness to the unexpected. This approach is more like meditation than a hunt.
Conceived in this way, photography requires respect for the subject. The subject plays a crucial part in our creation and thus involves a reciprocal exchange. As photographer John Running says in his book, Pictures for Solomon, “Making a photograph is usually a collaboration between the photographer and the subject. It doesn’t matter if the subject is a landscape, a still life, an animal or a person.” As a result, he says he tries to photograph “with care, respect, truth and wonder.”
In line with IGVP’s commitment, this approach means that our images should seek to convey respect, not arouse pity – to humanize rather than depersonalize.
Full collaboration and reciprocity between photographer and subject are not always possible. Nevertheless, we have a choice. Photography can be an act of piracy or a form of meditation. If we recognize images as gifts, if we cultivate an attitude of receptivity rather than acquisition, then our photography will certainly be affected by this in positive way.
Only when we photograph with care, respect, truth and wonder can we create photographs that encourage rather than destroy life-giving community.
Howard Zehr is Professor of Restorative Justice at the Center for Justice & Peacebuilding, Eastern Mennonite University (www.emu.edu/cjp), Virginia. His other blog, on restorative justice, photography and art-based research, may be found at http://emu.edu/blog/restorative-justice/.