"There is one thing the photograph must contain, the humanity of the moment"
Robert Frank, Swiss American Photographer
I am obsessed with the stories of the people around me. I will spend hours in cafes listening to conversations and piecing together the stories of strangers. From the young couple that is fighting through a difficult time, to the child that is anxiously waiting for her opportunity to break boundaries.
While the scenes of the world are filled with beauty, humanity brings the streets, markets, and parks of the world to life. Humanity is what turns a shallow space into a place of meaning. As a photographer committed to capturing the stories of the places I visit, I have had to come to terms with a personal moral dilemma: how to capture an intimate moment with a stranger while respecting their privacy and authentically telling the story.
Henri Cartier-Bresson (one of the most influential photographers in history) was known for his ability to accurately capture a moment of time. For me to feel comfortable taking a strangers photo, I have to feel confident in my understanding of the situation. I also have to feel comfortable as an active participant who is sharing in the experience of the person I am photographing. Before I snap a stranger, I want to know the geographic and cultural context. Understanding the layout and mechanics of a wet market in Indonesia will help me frame a subject in a light that accurately captures their long-term prestige as a desired spice vendor as opposed to instinctually capturing a snap judgement of them as a poor shop worker.
In the same vein, understanding the rates of girls education in a community outside of Addis Ababa in Ethiopia helps me piece together the story of a young girl sitting in the doorway of a humble home. I know that there is a very high chance that this young girl is not attending the school down the street. I also know that, even if she is attending the school, she will likely be pulled out as she gets older to help her mother in the home. I also know that her seat in the modest classroom I just visited is much more likely to be given to a young boy than kept for her. Understanding this story helped my snap the shot I wanted. One that captured the optimism in her eyes and told a story of desperation.
My work in international development has taken me to some of the poorest parts of the world and in them, I have found some of the most optimistic and happy people I have ever met. This nuance is my key to confidently capturing the photograph of a stranger. We have a tendency to exaggerate realities. Make situations more dire for the sake of the drama. Overemphasize one condition of a situation. However, people don't live dramatized versions of the lives we see them living - we know the exploitative terrors of poverty porn. People live their own realities and it takes an understanding of context to truly represent them.
A photographer's role as an artist in unique. Photographers are a preserver of time; a teller of the world's stories. The best story tellers are the ones who truly take the time to understand the characters and piece together the puzzle. In the words of the one and only Uncle Ben Parker "With great power, comes great responsibility."
The next time you take a photo of a stranger, stop and think "what do I actually know about this person's story at this moment in time?" If the answer is simply a shallow understanding of what you see, then I encourage you to take pause and find the time to learn. The lenses of our camera have so much potential to amplify a person's story. I have not spoken to a single person photographed in this blog; yet with a few pieces of glass, plastic, and mirror, I have preserved a piece of their story forever. I think we owe it to them to preserve the most authentic story we can. No dramatization, simply the truth.