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Are there things we shouldn’t photograph?

Are there things we shouldn’t photograph?balloon accident

Just the other day one of my sons acquired a bright red helium balloon. Whether by accident or by mischief, the balloon found itself stuck high up in a tree. After the usual dialogue of disappointment, I ran to get my camera because the image of a lone red balloon in a leafless tree looked real cool to me.

Other times I am presented with a beautiful sunset, and my first thought is never to photograph it.  I am happy to sit and stare at the changing colors and soak it in, knowing that my camera would never do it justice.

In 2013 , Time magazine photographer Sara Naomi Lewkowicz continued to capture a live incident of domestic violence without physically intervening. She has received both praise and chastisement for her actions.

The balloon in the tree was hardly a tragedy, but will illustrating the horrors of sexual slavery bring it condemnation or glory?

I wonder if there is a thing too beautiful that it should stay private or an evil too intense that it should never receive photographic fame.

I think my answer oscillates somewhere in between.

What are your thoughts?

  1. Interesting question. The first thing that comes to mind is Capa’s soldier photo from the Spanish Civil War, or Eddie Adam’s photo of General Nguyen Ngoc Loan. I think if we saw more pictures of the horror of war, we would not be so enthusiastic about sending our sons and daughters in harms way to do our political bidding. Adam’s photo was not the sum-total cause of the end of Vietnam, but it killed any remaining vestiges of political will to carry on that fight. It is a conundrum on capturing interpersonal violence on camera; whether to act to help the victim, or document the depravity so that society can examine itself, and perhaps act to protect the nameless, faceless victims of violence everywhere. I think I would err on the side of helping the victim if there were no one else present, though.

  2. Excellent insight. Thanks.

  3. Photography, like the written word, often serves different purposes. Sometimes it is intended as art, but other times to record an event as historical record or social commentary. Lewkowicz is a journalist…she just uses a camera instead of words. The balloon in the tree might have made a good painting. Either use of the medium is valid—whether as art or as record-keeping. As long as we don’t confuse the two!

  4. I have been having ideas about photography for many years. When I google “photography ideas” I get “ideas” about what to photograph and how to photograph it. So it so refreshing to have a much more serious and probing idea raised. This sort of thinking around photography puts photography in the world of ART.
    As to Mahmood Fazal’s provocative question, I think back to the 1970’s when I took nude photographs of my prepubescent daughter that were exhibited and collected in Museums and published in Aperture. At that time in America no one made any issue…these images were not seen as prurient or exploitative. Yet, today, I am told, a mother/photographer photographing her child nude is taken to task.
    How an artist responds to the shifting social/religious mores of their time is a good question. The artists I find most engaging and endearing over time have chosen not so to much embrace the values of their time and culture, but rather to question and challenge such values, making images that are different from those expected…free of fickle cultural values that are ever shifting.

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