Stolen Image

The following entry is somewhat lengthier than most entries that are posted on here, but I would urge you to read it through on the basis that at some point in your photographic endeavors, you might be faced with a subject or scenario that forces you to think twice about the choice you make in pressing the shutter. This choice is not about the technicalities of shutter speed, aperture, or ISO settings, but rather an internal combustion of emotional and moral weight. As the title of Joe McNally’s book states: “It all happens the moment it clicks.”

The subject of this story came about as a result of a caption in one of my photographic magazines dating back a couple of years. In it, there appears a photo of an elderly man sitting on a bench in one of the Far East countries (the exact country’s name having escaped my memory). The photographer wrote in about how he approached the elderly man in order to seek permission to photograph him. He then proudly writes that he was happy not to have ‘stolen’ the photo.

This got me thinking. I do a lot of street photography and while buildings, street signs, structures, patterns, and textures form a staple of what I photograph, there inevitably are photographs that have captured people. It’s unavoidable really, unless one becomes anally preoccupied with eliminating people completely in in their viewfinder; whilst beating the streets into photographic submission. This of course would also be defeating the point of street photography. I don’t go out of my way to photograph people on the streets, but there’s always an exception.

It is this exception that brings up the subject of my personal ‘stolen’ photos. Whilst driving from one side of Nelspruit to the city center to pick up my aunt on the 21st of Jan 2011, I witnessed a remarkable scene that still burns a hole in my mind. Struggling along on crutches, a man with one leg amputated below the knee made his way in the opposite direction to that in which I was driving, along the island section of the R40. All around him was a mass of traffic, blazing along in rapid waves. At that moment, the urge to recklessly pull over and call my camera into action was overwhelming. However, I couldn’t because the island separating the traffic directions was too high for my car and the time was already heading towards 17h00 (I was supposed to have picked up my aunt before 16h30). Taking a moment to assess the situation, I figured that based on the man’s speed and the distance I still had to cover, I could drive on to collect my aunt and still find the man within the vicinity in which I had witnessed him… provided that he didn’t divert off the main road.

It was an extraordinary sight. Not because he had a leg amputated and was using an unsafe part of the road to make his struggled progress. But rather, it was the fact that in spite of his physical liability, he had tied a rope around his waist and was pulling a trolley behind him. You had to have been there to be awestruck by it. The struggle to pull his weight along with that of the trolley was deeply etched on his face. His skin, toughened and blackened by the daily sun exposure, glistened as the sweat dripped from his head. The muscles on this thin frame were lean from his daily struggle, yet he soldiered on with gritty determination borne out of what had to be a life filled with very few options.

I couldn’t quite add up what I was witnessing. All along, cars barreled along and towards him at the sort of speeds that would have made an able person think twice about occupying the road on foot. The questions flowed thick and fast in my grey matter: Why was he struggling right alongside the island with motorcars whizzing towards him at quite a speed? The shoulder of the road had far more space. Where was he going? What was his name? What happened to his leg? And why was he pulling that trolley?

I positioned myself behind him at a fair distance and started composing my camera. The flowing traffic would be a challenge, with cars likely to come between my lens and him, but my biggest concern in that moment was him seeing me photographing him. How would he react to someone photographing him? How would I react at being caught? Would he be angry? The adrenaline was flowing and the shutter got to work.

It was in that moment that I also acknowledged just how woefully underwhelming and inadequate my Sigma 70-300mm DG lens was. Shooting at f5 and ISO400 with a shutter speed of 1/500th, the first couple of images came out as unfocused as though an intoxicated elephant were operating the camera. As if in competition with the noise of the flowing traffic, the auto focus motor whirred away loudly, yet focused at the same laboring rate as a loaded old diesel bakkie chugging up a steep pass. At the time I bought the lens, I neither knew anything about SLR cameras, nor the importance of quality glass. In that moment, it all became frustratingly clear. Such is the value of experience and big bucks… and while I managed to squeeze out some better focused images as I continued clicking, it was apparent that speed and sharpness were as foreign to the lens as honesty is in our various government departments.

I spent roughly 20 minutes photographing him, moving along and changing my positions as stealthily as I could to avoid the dreaded eye confrontation. All along, the questions refused to leave my mind. With the final shot captured, we were homeward bound. My aunt, confused in the passenger seat by my incredible interest in this man looked ever more puzzled. But she would never understand; her mind more occupied with the lives of celebrities and reality TV, so I changed the topic to the subject of dinner.

Strangely though, I didn’t feel accomplished. Quite the opposite actually… I felt uncertain. Had I taken advantage of the man’s situation? At some point during the shoot, we made eye contact. In his struggle towards covering the next aching meter, he lifted his head and saw me. I kept my eye peering through the viewfinder, afraid to move it in feigned acknowledgement of the moment. Did I degrade his dignity in my pursuit of capturing him? Did I offend him? Somehow, it wasn’t easy to answer these questions, yet an answer in the affirmative seemed appropriate. It was not the eye contact that made me question my actions, but rather the fact that I never asked him for permission, which in turn could be interpreted as stealing his image. How could I have asked him for permission though? Under the circumstances, it would have upset the very essence of the scene. Had I asked, would he have even agreed to me photographing him? Would he even have continued what he was doing (his purity of purpose defining the scene)?

In another vain, a certain sadness announced itself…. that of the continued coldness of the modern human soul. During my time photographing him, not a single car stopped to help. I can somewhat understand sedans not stopping as they don’t have space to store a trolley, but being Nelspruit, bakkies are a dime a dozen and not one stopped to help him along his journey. Ironically, many of the passing motorized faces looked at me with camera in hand, rather than realizing the subject of my photographic interest as they whizzed along by.

Given that press photographers and those involved in shooting on battlefields or countries of extreme poverty would have been frequently exposed to scenes of far greater human anguish and suffering, why then am I making a mountain out of what seemingly – on the surface – resembles a molehill? In one way, I think that we as photographers sometimes feel that it is our ultimate right to photograph any and every thing under the sun. We have a sense to want to document it all and feel great satisfaction in capturing images that could potentially elevate us further up the hierarchy of photographic genius. I could of course be accused of being wrong in this aspect, but in writing this, I’m expressing my own personal perspective and not one that has been scientifically tested… in other words, this is not a mathematical equation where the answer is either right or wrong, no questions asked.

It is this emotional cauldron of unanswered questions that have kept these images hidden away on an external hard drive. By showcasing them, would I be benefitting as a photographer from this man’s unfortunate and difficult situation? Where does one draw the line, if a line can be drawn at all? I don’t know. But one thought that ultimately kept my finger firmly on the shutter button was the realization that his life could possibly be improved by the existence of his portrait. If a hand reached out to him and gave him a chance in life of which he has been denied due to his situation, then I would have done my small bit towards fulfilling my human duty.

Here’s to the trolley man…