A Reflecton on "Photographs Not Taken"

I've been reading a thought provoking little book "Photographs Not Taken" edited by Will Steacy. Many book blurbs say this book is a collection of essays by photographers about failed attempts to make a picture. I concur with the description by the publisher however: "about moments that never became a picture". It's a big difference, that change in phrasing and I think the former denigrates Steacy original aim.

The essays are short, some just a few paragraphs. Others run to two or three pages. Some are lists, some are stream of consciousness, others are diary entries. Although some commentards disagree, I was struck by how articulate (in there own way) these photographers are; they who work by telling our stories visually. Each essay is a thoughtful reflection on the circumstances surrounding an event where the shutter was not released (or in some cases shouldn't have been released).

Several themes appear throughout the book behind why an image was not made:
  • Respect for the subject/moment
  • Looking back to youth when photography was not on their radar
  • Acts of violence (random or premeditated) that required other responses
  • A realization that the moment was not meant to be or could not be shared
And yet, for each moment "that never became an image" there is no regret, no "aw shucks", no "woulda, coulda, shoulda". Rather there is a restful acceptance that even though no physical image was made, the image and all of its emotions remain with the photographer for good or ill.

This book also provides an insight into how photographers think about photography, what it means to be a photographer and what a photographers responsibilities are.

Hetherington's description of the the flight from Monrovia with rebel forces is unnerving: you feel like an adrenalin junkie when he finally ends with:
"There isn’t much more to add, but I always remember that day and the feeling of being so empty — physically, mentally, and spiritually — that it  was impossible to make the photograph."
Doug Dubois lamenting his lack of courage to stop photographing his subject and hiding the resulting images in a box.

Chris Jordan gently remembering an image of a backyard barbeque that took on a mystical aura but was never made; now residing in a private exhibition in his mind to be visited at will.

Ed Kashi on how at the end of a shoot in Lahore happening on a horrific car wreck springing into action to help the injured, putting aside the urge to make an image.

I don't profess to have been in the same situations as the photographers in this book nor do I have the same breadth and depth of experience as they (let alone being in the same league). Perhaps like Lisa Kereszi the images I didn't make happened while I was young: those images in my memory of my extended family, those images I did make while the images I should have made were peering over my shoulder but in my youthful arrogance I ignored (and can no longer remember).

Now, approaching 60 (god that weirds me out) I am finally hitting my stride, learning to make the images that need to be made for me, by me as well as images that will not be made by me. Yes, like Ed Kashi says,
"Usually there are various ethical, personal, or tactical reasons for this decision."
I usually baulk when I can't do the subject justice or treat the subject with dignity that any subject is due. Having suffered from depression, I will not photograph the mentally ill or the outcasts unless somehow I can build a bridge with them and in someway tell their story. Anything else is just a cheap shot.

This book is a must read for anyone who thinks about what it means to be an honest photographer. This book is a reminder that to be a successful and dare I say mature photographer you have to be truly present and in the moment: even if that means not making an image.

"Photographs Not Taken" Edited by Will Steacy Published by Daylight Books ISBN 978-0983231615

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