We love photos of people in natural, unposed situations because they capture a moment at which a person or people were simply living their lives, however active or inactive they were. Errol Morris notes that a posed picture can be just as real and fascinating, and he’s right, but there’s something immediately intriguing about a good picture of someone who’s unaware they’re being photographed. Almost all of us privileged enough to have had access to a camera have tried to take some of these good pictures, and certainly all of us have admired them on the walls of an art gallery or in somebody else’s photo album.
Today I went down to Yuigahama beach, alone, to sit and read a book. (Orson Scott Card’s Xenocide, if you must know.) It was reasonably busy – nothing like summer, of course, but it’s getting warmer now and there would’ve been a good couple of hundred people out walking, playing and sitting. After sitting on the sand for about half an hour, a man came up to me and cheerfully asked, “Shashin o totte mo ii desu ka?” Is it all right if I take a photo? I quickly replied with an affirmative “Hai, douzo!” and returned to my book to read.
Usually it’s me taking photos of somebody else, not the other way round. I’ve never really felt particularly comfortable in front of the camera, but I like to observe, to see things in others that most people wouldn’t notice, and to capture that moment. I’m usually too shy to actually ask someone if I can photograph them, though, so I just end up observing and feeling satisfied that I saw something special. When somebody does want to take photos of me, there’s almost always somebody else there in the frame too, so I never think of it as a photo of me – more a photo of us, and the other person or people probably look way more interesting than I do.
So, for somebody to want to photograph me and me alone was something unusual. I imagine people who get asked a lot are able to immediately return to what they were doing and continue being natural to some degree, but for me, the words on the page of my book were immediately replaced with stacks of self-conscious thought. I was completely aware that in front of me, just out of my lowered field of vision, this guy was snapping away. This wasn’t a bad feeling at all, nor did I feel inadequate or anything like that; I just wasn’t used to it and didn’t really know how to remain natural.
I’d be interested to see how the photos turn out, because I’ll bet that my intense self-awareness will show through in some way. Does that make it any less natural of a photo, though? That’s how I reacted at that point of my life to that situation, and there’s no other way it could’ve been. Nothing wrong with it. Not exactly how I’d like it to be, and it might not make for an immediately appealing photograph, but it’s still a reflection of reality. It’s interesting, though, that despite the fact that I am stared at blatantly on a daily basis – usually on the trains – someone with a camera felt so much more intense than just a pair of eyes. It should really be the other way round, I think: staring is often a product of shock or surprise, whereas someone with a camera, like this guy, is genuinely made curious by your appearance and would like to capture an image because he or she thinks it might be memorable. It’s more innocuous. I’ll spend more time on the beach and see if I get used to it.