I’m a member of the Religious Education (RE) Committee at church. At my church Religious Educators were called Sunday School teachers when I was growing up. The RE Committee has many duties, one of which is to assist during trainings. Last night was the first night of the two-day teacher training before the start of the church school year and I and two of my fellow committee members were tasked with creating a sandwich dinner. One person did the “big shop” for supplies, and we all unloaded the food, chopped things, plated things, gathered enough plates, glasses and silverware for everyone and arranged everything buffet style.
As the teachers were going through the line, we observed, taking care of needs here and there; refilling water pitchers, chopping more tomato, picking up dropped items and exposing them, what have you. After everyone had been served, we served ourselves.
I was standing with my fellow committee members near the buffet table eating a rice cake sandwich and had just taken a rather large bite when a woman approached with a camera. She held it up, the now universal command of “arrange yourself for a portrait!” and my fellow committee members moved in on both sides of me. I don’t mind impromptu portraits, but was not really thrilled to be captured with a large amount of food in my mouth. Still, I made the best of the situation, shifting the food to the middle of my mouth, dropping the plate to waist level in anticipation that the photograph would be from the chest up and giving a great big closed mouth smile.
At that point, another woman noticed that I was holding the plate at waist level. “Patricia!” she said in a scolding voice, and held out her hands to me to take the plate. I handed it over, attempted to move some more food in my mouth with my hand and straightened back up for the picture that I was at this point not at all interested in being a part of.
“Are you done and ready for the photo?” The photographer asked in a rather dismissive tone, as if I was being the troublesome one.”
“Just take the picture.” My lack of enthusiasm came through despite the food in my mouth, I reassumed my closed mouth smile the picture was taken and we all moved on.
The incident was over, but sticks with me. Who was the rude one here? From the scolding tones of both the bystander woman and the photographer I am left with the impression that I was. But having a camera in one’s hand does not guarantee cooperative subjects. In fact, with the ubiquitous of cameras, we seem to have lost the ability to ask permission to take a photo, grandly assuming that everyone is ready to smile for the camera. The same photographer took many photos earlier when I was setting the food out. I was busy and concentrating on my work and so ignored her efforts and went about mine, but felt a twinge of annoyance and would have preferred not be photographed at that particular moment. Later, if she had asked to take my fellow committee members photo in appreciation of our efforts, I would have been able to say, “can you wait a minute, so I can finish chewing?” and posed in the grand style my women’s college social education has prepared me for. But she just held up her camera and assumed compliant subjects.
When I was growing up and film was expensive photos were comparatively rare. A few years ago, looking at the photos my friend had amassed from high school, I marveled that the number of photos she had taken of our entire high school experience was equal to perhaps a month of our photos taken today as we’re both bloggers. But when film was expensive, there was much more of an opt-out clause. In fact, several of my friends didn’t like having their photos taken at all, going so far as to hide their faces in the nearest corner to avoid the camera. With the expense of film removed from the process, one can now snap photos of the reluctant subject until they comply with our wishes. But should we?
I see the effects of digital photography at school. It has become another means of teachers for teaching, for illustrating the passages in their classrooms. At the beginning of the school year, the teachers take close-up portraits of students, enlarge them and hang them on the wall with the students’ names. They tend to do this at recess, and I watch their progress as they work through their class list. Every student complies, standing at attention, smiling for the camera. None of today’s generation seems to be camera shy and I don’t think it occurs to them they could be, as the digital photography revolution happened before their birth.
Still, I think people with cameras in hand should keep in mind that the photograph they would like to capture isn’t necessarily a priority for the people in the photograph. A simple, “May I take your photo?” would be helpful to those who are not willing to be photographed, either in the moment, or ever. And when asking, photographers need to leave room for a gracious “No thank you.” For whatever reasons.