Like so many photographers before and like many more to come I begin this post (and possible series) on the rules of photography by asserting that there are no actual rules — just guidelines, or principles — and that good photographers should ignore them at will.
So far, so predictable.
Here, though, is where I want to start thinking about the rules of photography from a different perspective. Generally, when photographers discuss the rules of photography their intent is to help us understand how to create better images. I agree with that intent, but I believe that the single most important rule that will enable a photographer to create better images isn’t so much a rule — or a guideline or a principle — as an attitude, even a virtue.
That virtue could variously be called empathy or compassion or humanity.
Now, at this point it should be clear that we are discussing a particular kind of photography here. You may be able to summon up compassion for a mountain, or a skyscraper, or a Ferrari, but the photography that I have in mind is that which involves people, whether of the formal portrait variety or the more spontaneous street and documentary kind.
So here it is in a nutshell: there isn’t a photograph in the world worth taking if that photograph reflects a lack of respect for the dignity and humanity of the subject.
Where this truly comes into play is in the documentary or street style of photography, where people are not necessarily giving their consent to be photographed. Unfortunately, many photographers of this style show little regard for their subjects, considering them to be fair game and justifying their approach by claiming their ‘rights’ as photographers to shoot freely in a public environment.
(This argument, of course, ignores the fact that different jurisdictions have different laws governing the acceptable limits of photography in public. Its advocates also refuse to acknowledge that by exploiting the law in ways that cause offence and hurt they help to shape an environment in which the next generation of photographers will have to operate under much more restrictive laws, testifying, in the process, to their essential selfishness.)
Here in Manila, opportunities for street photography abound. Part of the reason is that so many people live their lives on the street. They are not homeless, but they are poor, and their homes are such that many aspects of daily life happen in public rather than in private. Yet the reason most of us choose to live out parts of our lives in private is precisely because we don’t wish to do so in public. Just because some people find themselves in a situation where they do not have that choice does not make them ‘fair game’ for our cameras.
Many people sleep in public here in Manila. Sometimes they lie in positions and postures that leave them looking vulnerable. Sometimes they are contorted in ways that look funny. In either case a compassionate, empathetic photographer will resist the temptation to shoot. To be clear, while those who are vulnerable will often be found among the poorest people or those who are homeless, it is not just here that basic human empathy is needed. All people deserve this, even those we dislike, even those who might be our enemies.
The biggest challenge is that while all manner of technical skills, and even aesthetic skills, can be learned, it is much more difficult to learn empathy for others, since, as I mentioned previously, it is a virtue, not a skill. Yet without it all your technical virtuosity is of little profit.
Now there are some documentary photographers whose professional work requires them to photograph people in the some of the most physically and emotionally painful moments of life. Their calling, their professional duty, is the primary justification for doing so, a calling that does not encompass the overwhelming majority of those of us who photograph in public. Yet even here I believe it is possible to see the difference between those who have empathy for their subjects, even as they, in some ways, exploit their suffering. Consider Don McCullin or Rene Burri on the one hand, and too many contemporary photographers who seem driven by the desire for exposure and awards on the other.
So there it is. My photography rule number one — empathy, compassion, humanity, fellow-feeling. Whatever you call it, if you don’t have it, all the practice, all the qualifications, all the workshops in the world will simply be a matter of polishing an empty shell, enabling you to produce ever more refined, hollow images.