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On Being The Documentarian

Not surprisingly, my outing with the Alter Egos Society last weekend inspired me to bring my camera. When you’re about to surround yourself with people who are swilling alcohol while wearing wacky costumes, how does that not scream Photo Opportunity? This was an evening that’d be full of interesting targets for my lens, but as I started pulling together my on-the-go bag of professional photographer gear, I found myself hesitating.

That moment of hesitation faded, and the effort of wrangling my fake octopus arms and my assortment of camera lenses and peripherals wasn’t wasted: I really enjoyed capturing all of the unusual happenings, and I also had myself several tasty beverages and an overall good time. I was excited enough about flipping through the photos I’d taken to have them edited and posted online before the weekend was over.

I’d also put a fair amount of thought into my own costume, and thought it came out pretty nicely, in spite of the time constraints of my overstuffed schedule. I can get pretty obsessive about costuming, so I have to admit that I waited with no small level of excitement for photos from other folks at the event, hoping to see how my getup looked through eyes that weren’t mine. My search for photos didn’t particularly pan out, though: I appeared in almost none of the photos, and the clearest one was a shot from my own camera, that I’d asked someone else to take for me.

That probably sounds more whiny than I’m intending it to, but at that moment, I was reminded of why I hesitated at bringing my gear on the day-of: documenting an experience removes you from the act of living it.

This seems to be a pretty consistent pitfall of being the photographer at an event: you take a lot of photos, and leave little other evidence that you were present. It’s a characteristic that can be great for things like weddings–it’s something I’ve been complimented on by several of my clients, in fact–and it allows you to capture some of the most genuine, unself-conscious, hilarious, and real moments and interactions amongst a group of people. There’s an advantage when the people you’re photographing don’t notice you, because they’re simply doing things, and not overthinking them.

That unobtrusiveness isn’t so great, however, for random funtimes when you’re dressed up in ridiculous fashion, and wanting to act and interact. For a person who’s haphazardly firing off shots with a point-and-shoot, the mental effort is pretty minimal, but for anyone who considers themselves a photographer, anyone who’s invested in the shot, the mind shifts at least some focus away from, “hey, I’m at an interesting place and having a good time!” and diverts it towards a constant undercurrent of thoughts such as, “do I like how I’m composing this shot?” or, “do I want a bit of motion blur, or should I crank the shutter to 1/250th?” or, “the mixed ambient lighting in this bar really sucks.”

The way other people respond to you is also different. Those who have what I call, “camera radar,” will instantly sense that you’re pointing a lens at them, and stop whatever they’re doing. Some folks will immediately shy away, or hide behind a friend. Others will do something completely unnatural, and while unnatural can be hammy and entertaining–it certainly was entertaining at the Alter Egos shindig!–it can also be confusing or uncomfortable. Some will pause mid-stride or move out of your way, which is just as likely to screw up a shot as it is to improve it. Still, no matter what the response to a camera’s presence, most everyone will at least hesitate to approach you or interrupt you, because Oh-Gee-That’s-A-Big-Fancy-Camera-And-I’m-Intimidated. The camera has a way of creating a barrier between you and anything else that’s happening in a given room, and it takes you out of the experience in a noticeable way.

Thing is, there are times, like this past weekend, when I want to have record of a place I’ve been, or a day that I’ve experienced. There are things that I don’t simply want to trust to my brain’s fuzzy recollections. I want to look back on an image and have it trigger all the enjoyable memories of the moments surrounding it. I want to share an image with those who were there and help them remember that place, or share it with those who weren’t and give them a taste of what it was like.

Each time I take my camera out, I remember this. There are beautiful convergences of time, space, and spirit that I want to save for the rest of my life, but in the act of trying to do so, will I take myself out of the experience so much that I leave myself with less to remember? Is documenting an experience worth the risk of potentially setting myself apart from it? Is it possible to overcome the invisible wall that the camera creates, and somehow live a moment and capture it at the same time?

If I ever find a way to take a photo of something and also be a part of it, I’ll consider it a huge success. Until then, I’ll simply have to choose between the photographer and the person.

(and, for the curious, here’s that one photo of myself that I was wise enough to request.)

Rocktopussy is up to no good.


  1. For what it’s worth, it sounds like maybe you need to bring out a simple point and shoot to the events for which you want to be present and just accept you won’t get the same killer shots (in exchange for getting to be more present). An SLR is definitely a barrier – it’s a big heavy thing either between your face and the world or hanging from your neck and blocking your heart from the world.

  2. though i’m an abstainer and not a moderator (see if you didn’t catch it in the tweetstream earlier this week), perhaps you are not like me! if you’re not all-or-nothing, maybe make a pact with yourself to enjoy things for 30 minutes and photograph for 30 minutes? or just shoot at the first venue, lock your camera in your car, and enjoy the rest of the night unburdened? while i would have lost out in that case (and thanks so much for photographing me, which i’m sure i dragged you away from a fun conversation to do. sorry for drunken impoliteness :/), perhaps a winner would be you?

    i wrestled with this one and lost. decided i’d rather be fuzzily in the moment than forever doomed to recollect some angles of it perfectly from a picture i remember taking better than i remember being there. and i already have 500 pictures of the grand canyon…

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