caption (image above): untitled, Sofia Silva (2019).

Doing snapshots, I often photograph out of awe. I’m easily dazzled by natural events and living by the sea, on the Atlantic coast, sets the perfect conditions for nature to reveal its sublime impression. Although I’m conscious of the awe effect, I never instantaneously react to it. In other words, when regarding nature, pressing the shutter is never a Pavlovian moment. I let the awe set in, I admire its magnificence and then, sometimes, I take a photograph. That photograph never translates the experience; it’s something else. I love both, but would never hesitate to choose the experience over an image that results from it. Photography has a language of its own and denying the medium its autonomy (its power to become a subjective form of expression) is a poor form of love for photography

These 35mm photographs that I use to “illustrate” this post were shot with low quality equipment in regular color negative film. They’re not looking for a nostalgic feeling (couldn’t be further from that), but for an expression that respects the way I feel when I go on walks. These photographs create the illusion of ethical photography because they are seemingly harmless. But are they?

More often than not, the awe isn’t photographable or the emotional experience of the amazement asks not be turned into an image. The other day, at dawn, after climbing a hill, I saw a white horse amidst the fog. The horse was standing in a straight line from me, but in a detached hill. I had the camera, as usually, but it felt like such an intimate moment that I chose not to photograph. I’ll never forget that moment and I wouldn’t want to share it in the form of a photograph. I’d rather tell about it. 

In The Art of Missing Information, by Lyle Rexer, an introductory essay for the book Photographs not Taken (ed. Will Steacy), the author resumes the conditions that make a collection of essays like this so relevant. Throughout the book, several photographers tell us about events and moments they chose not to photograph or helped them decide to no longer make a certain kind of photography. It’s intense. As Rexer states, “the anecdotes collected here, personal as they are, reflect an aspect of the growing ‘crisis’ of photography, a crisis that has to do with the self-consciousness of the genre and the broader ambivalence about the role of images in a media-saturated world”, to which he adds: 

Yes, photography is a kind of atavism, a by-now instinctive response to the technologized, spectacular world, a mad cataloging that often resembles nothing so much as a vast collection of toenail cuttings. Yet these days every photograph taken by people who do it for a living arrives inside a set of quotation marks, a bracketed form of perception that says: “Don’t trust me!” and “Should I really be showing you this?” and “Should you really be looking?” Above all, “Does it matter?”
[… ]
As Marcel Proust understood, memory is not exclusively or even predominantly visual. It is synesthetic, a combination and even a confusion of the senses that no simple image can reach or encapsulate. A photograph can act as a spur to memory, it can yield treasures, like looking under your bed and finding the baseball card you were certain you lost. But an image stands mute before the inexpressible delicacy, horror, humor, and associative complexity of our experience.

Sofia Silva, Untitled, 2019.

I think when people are hurting you better have a very good reason to take their picture.
Dave Anderson, about a photograph he didn’t take of a man grieving the death of his cat.

Driving south on 7th Avenue, I dropped Melissa off on the corner of Christopher Street. Somehow we thought the day was going to go on as usual. The demo of a wall in my studio was going to happen, the prints I needed to make would get done, and in a few hours we would talk about what we were going to do for dinner later on that night. As I rounded the corner of Varrick and Beach Streets, Howard Stern was the first to announce that he, too, was watching the smoke come out of the World Trade Center. Upstairs, my dad and I recalled the 1993 bombings that shut down the neighborhood for weeks in my senior year of high school. I grabbed my camera and, with a friend, walked to the base of the World Trade Center. It’s not that I didn’t want to take a photograph; I couldn’t. I was no longer a part of my body. We watched the bodies fall, the buildings collapse, and the people run.
As photographers, we dream of these opportunities to photograph the unbelievable. To bear witness and capture historic events, moments in history that will be discussed for lifetimes. For me, the experience of events is altered really quite drastically when I photograph it.
I have used photography as a tool to separate myself from some pretty horrific experiences in my life. Being on one side of the lens and not the other, I was able to turn on and turn off my relationship to these experiences. I guess it’s a coping mechanism that I picked up at a really early age. As much as it can help to separate myself from difficult situations, it can also keep me from truly experiencing events. For this reason, I generally don’t take pictures when I go on vacation. It’s not that I don’t want to have a photograph of the moment; it’s more that I would rather be living in the moment than worrying about capturing it. Looking back, I believe it is this idea that prevented me from taking any pictures on September 11th. The cloud of smoke engulfed lower Manhattan and my camera remained at my side the entire time. Thirty-six frames of unexposed film.
Joshua Lutz, about (not) photographing 9/11.

Sofia Silva, Untitled, 2019.

Photographing her in depravity, showing her scoring, suffering, sick, and high, making images that are so valued in a certain tradition of documentary photography, seemed all wrong to me. The only pictures I take of Kim now are of her smiling, often with my daughter, whom she calls her little sister, and they go in my family album.
Nina Berman, about (no longer) photographing Kim.

If there are “home” photographers and “travel” photographers, I’m most certainly the latter. As much as I admire the intimacy of artists like Nicholas Nixon and Sally Mann, I find it almost impossible to photograph anyone but strangers. And while I’d like to make pictures where I live in Minnesota, I usually have to travel in order to find my eyes.
When my wife and I went to Bogotá, Colombia, to adopt a baby girl, I had no intention of doing a photographic project. On the day that we were to receive our daughter, I decided to shoot video instead. I set up the cheap camera on a tripod and pointed it to the location where we were standing in the orphanage. On the recording my wife and I are seen smiling nervously with anticipation. You hear a nurse walk into the room, my wife shrieks with joy, opens her arms, and we both step out of the frame. The single most remarkable event of our life was documented only in audio. Perhaps the mystery only makes it more meaningful.
We ended up spending two months in Colombia. With this unexpected time on my hands, I decided to make a photographic album for our new daughter. But I was unable to take serious pictures of my baby and wife and the new bond forming among us. I needed to walk the streets in order to make pictures. But even though I photographed street dogs and strangers, every picture was an attempt to see my child.
Alec Soth, on photographing others to see those who are closer.

Sofia Silva, Untitled, 2019.

I hear a gurgle and look to my right. John is foaming at the mouth. His eyes are rolling back. Boom. Man down. He’s fallen off the crate and presently is on his back, twisting and bucking. His head is spilled into the kitchen, his torso in the living room. Drool covers his chin. I put my camera down, rush to his side. “Are you all right, John? I’m right here with you… you’ll be O.K. Don’t worry, John.”
[…]
This is the shot! This is the action shot. This is the shot that explains in one photograph the level of self-destruction I have been witnessing for the last several weeks. This is the shot
that will make my book complete. Again, the voice in my head, “Take the picture! Leave his side and pick up your camera!” I don’t. I can’t. The voice that has always had its way… goes away.

Juliana Beasley.

I could see the image, but I could only hear his sobs and feel my own falling down my face. I held my 4×5 at my chest, ready to shoot, but not able to. I put down the camera; the moment was his.
Erika Larsen, about (not) photographing a father who had just lost his daughter.

Sofia Silva, Untitled, 2019.

So the photographer declared war on the mother.
[…]
The majority of photographs are not being taken. When I decide to set so many limits, I pay the price with images empty of all the emotions I want to put in them, and this makes me the photographer I am today–torn.
Elinor Carucci, about being a mother and a photographer.

I was walking up a major road in West Belfast on a damp, gray morning before much was going on in the streets. The seagulls were calling overhead and swirling and I felt alone and quiet. Then I saw a man walking toward me, his coat buttoned up against the elements. The scene seemed colorless, just steel sky, silver gulls, and iron gray coat. Then, for just a second, the gulls flocked around and behind him like attendants and in that moment it seemed as if he reflected the soul of the industrial northern city, forged from metal and mist. In that same moment, I hesitated, and my camera hung still around my neck. We passed shoulders.
This memory is over ten years old now. Who knows how I have changed it over time, remembering some things correctly while other aspects inevitably shift or disappear? But it is an image that I think about more than any photograph that I have actually made.
KayLynn Deveney.

Sofia Silva, Untitled, 2019.

S.M. was crying and I was crying and it was so sad and we were both so upset that I didn’t know what to do, so I picked up my camera and took photos of tears flowing down S.M.’s eyes and Ruby hanging off of her, sucking her thumb and wanting to comfort her crying mom. I have never shown this image, the saddest picture I have ever made.
Jim Goldberg, about photographing intimate moments (sometimes out of despair).

Later in life, when my three children were born, I only photographed the beginning of the labor of my third child, and never the crowning (the birth moment) of any of them. I regret this only a little, but I know that I’m at peace with the decision. I wonder how valuable pictures of my children at the moment of their birth would be to me now, but sometimes you just get an instinct when to put the camera down and be fully present.
Nadav Kander, about (not) photographing the birth of his children.

2 replies on “Photography and awe (photographs not taken)

  1. Thank you for your thoughtful—and thought-provoking—response to Lyle Rexer’s introduction ‘The Art of Missing Information’ and the book ‘Photographs not Taken’. Your story of your encounter with white horse with the evocative pictures of white clouds surrounding it together underline the importance of not always reacting to reality by photographing, especially when connected, sensorily or emotionally, to a situation. Your other photographs also invoke the hiatus…the gash in the sky above the lone palm, the gap between the dunes that leads to the shore. It is lovely to be with you in spirit on your walks…even when you’re not taking pictures but replace them with thoughts as lovely and important as these.

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