Two days ago, the art publisher Phaidon started to publish a series of video interviews with Steve McCurry, in which he explains in one-minute installments practical details of his personal approach to photography. In the first clip, he speaks about how it is important to take a few moments to talk to the people that you are intending to photograph, to establish a personal relationship with them before you shoot their portrait. This is not self-evident for street photographers, who are regularly debating whether it is better to “shoot first and then ask questions” – so to say – since approaching their subjects destroys the “decisive moment”. I personally feel that McCurry is right and that I will try harder to get into contact with my subjects. However, I find this is easier in non-Western cultures, where photographers are still not seen as an intrusive element, whereas in Western Europe it is much harder to break the shell of people’s personal space for virtually everything, not to mention candid photography.
In the second installment, McCurry makes the point that it is a good idea to knock on people’s doors and ask whether it is possible to photograph, say, a cityscape from their rooftops. This is in fact an enlargement of his first point, in that he argues that it is better to make it clear what one does, and to engage those around oneself in the act of photography. I think it depends a lot on personality of the photographer whether s/he would do this, but I definitely it can be more rewarding to establish a relationship rather than shoot and run. In “War Photographer“, James Nachtwey is shown taking pictures of a family that lives between railway lines (I think it was in the Philippines) because they could not even afford the simples roof over their head in the slum next to the railway line. He greeted the family, spoke to them, worked with them, and was able to take pictures of a closeness that street photography only rarely can convey, due to the inherent distance between photographer and subject.
Today’s video interview with McCurry is about something different. He tells us about how it is important to “be in the moment” when photographing, whether in conflict zones or urban settings. He argues that it is impossible to do this when shooting with someone else, as one looses concentration and the connection to the setting in which one finds oneself when one is not alone, and I can only but agree with this. I have gone out two or three times photographing with others, and it has never worked for me. As my family can attest – as soon as I have a camera in front of my face, I am not with them anymore. The immediate environment suddenly becomes the only thing that is relevant, in relationship to the act of photographing it.