The Traveling Lens: Candid Shots or Full Immersion?

I came across a great article today by  Lola Akinmade regarding travel photography. (Take a look here: She discusses that there is much to be gained from asking to take someone’s picture and the interacting that follows with the request. Akinmade says that fear of rejection and the shame of rejection are tied into ego.  You might receive a very public “No!” but that is okay. It’s not always about you. (I am paraphrasing her a bit here.)  But, she continues, it is worthwhile. If you see her photographs of people from around the world, you’d agree with her.

So what about my own focus? My own photography journey?

When I am taking photos of people in a public setting, I’d rather hide in the potted fern next to the exit. I love taking candid shots that are free of the “I’m ready for my close-up, best angle guardedness” that seeps into peoples’ faces when they know they are being photographed.  When people have to be reminded to “find your window” or “say cheese” they are not being their authentic selves. They are trying to look their best for the camera.

That said, what am I really doing? Is this about my comfort level? Am I controlling how  the situation or person is being documented? In trying to get that openness framed, am I taking power away from the subject by not allowing them relationship with me? What am I afraid of getting in contact with,  me or them?

Some of it could have to do with distraction from the intention on the photographer’s part. If the intent is to get the photo, then conversation and interaction might be seen as a detour, rerouting their goal. Also, if people are aware there is a camera pointed in their direction, maskings/personas occur. The subject is no longer just the subject but an outward projection of what the subject hopes to convey of themselves visually.

Akinmade does a great job of moving us beyond the mechanics of point and click and she asks of us, as photographers of all levels of ability, why we are there and what we are afraid of. She suggests we take a look at our own motivations as we try to frame the shot.

How do you photograph your travels? Are they peopled or landscaped? What’s the most uncomfortable you have become when taking a photo while traveling?

Paris: Latin Quarter 2013

Regarding the photo above: Imagine if I had asked permission to photograph the expert  French waiters instead of taking a picture of the cafe at a remove. I have the memory of the place, but no intimacy or warmth of experience expressed visually. This photo shares setting, but doesn’t give the viewer any way to anchor their gaze. By the way, the mussels in a cream dill sauce were amazing that day. Best solo lunch of my life!


(The information above, including the photo, is from NPR’s Facebook post this morning.)

I found out this morning from NPR that Koko, the gorilla, known for her barrier-breaking communication, died. Happy Summer Solstice. A being that transcended cages, at least symbolic ones, died peacefully in her sleep.

I was six years old when Koko was born, but didn’t know about her until I was fourteen or fifteen when she started receiving national attention by communicating via Sign Language. There was a huge article in the National Geographic about redrawing the lines of communication. Our world had just gotten bigger, our embrace larger.

A few years later, she asked for a kitten. When the kitten died, she mourned and expressed her grief in words. I look back on these events now and wonder how we, as humans, can’t do half as well as that most days. Now we put children in cages and deny  communicating our basic needs or hearing the grief or the needs of others.

I was at the waning end of my preteen/early teen mad crush on Jane Goodall and the discovery of Koko’s abilities rekindled my love for primates and my One-Earth-feel- good-teach-the-world-to-sing philosophy. At least for a bit.

Newly released out of the hell-pit years of middle school and junior high, where I was the bullied and alienated freak, I was recreating myself. I didn’t have to be that twisted mess or be a bully, myself, anymore. High school was on the horizon like a beacon of hope. Everything seemed brighter and animals could talk. It was like Narnia was one step closer.

This morning, the death of Koko has triggered a palimpsest moment in me. I looked in the bathroom mirror, saw the usual wrinkle and bloat and then, from down there somewhere in the sub-basement, this fourteen year old kid welled up and cried. It was like another of my flooring joists had just given way.

The structure has shifted. I wonder if my house will have any good bones left. How do you repair a palimpsest’s foundation?

I love that fourteen year old kid who chose a gorilla for a hero. C’mon, that kid was way outside the box. So was Koko.

Here’s a Youtube video of Koko and Robin Williams to doubly bust your fourteen year old heart:



The Palimpsests of Faulkner County

For decades I have been quasi-obsessed with palimpsests both on the page and in the great “out there”. Yet, until conferring with Jack West while attending the 2018 AWP conference in Tampa, I had no idea there was an official name for what I had been seeing/feeling all this time. According to Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, a palimpsest is: “writing material (such as a parchment or tablet) used one or more times after earlier writing has been erased.” Or “something having usually diverse layers or aspects apparent beneath the surface.” Examples of palimsests that they use are: “Canada … is a palimpsest, an overlay of classes and generations.” —Margaret Atwood and “too short a time to get to know the palimpsest of Genevan societies, let alone those of Switzerland.” —George Steiner

Palimsests exist as parchments scraped clean to write on again that still bear the original writing underneath. Perhaps this original work is only visible through scans and scientific wizardry, but it can also be as simple as crossing out the original texts and writing between the lines. Apparently a good sheet of paper was awfully hard to come by in the way back when. Or maybe it was how the ancients backed up their early drafts of saga and sacred.

They also exist in the landscape and buildings we know. Just read any issue of Archaeology and you will find something built on something else that is standing atop a village from the Bronze Age. Richard the III was buried under a car park for how long? The jungle life over grew ancient cities that are now being found only by landscape anomalies picked up using aerial reconnaissance.

Locally, in Faulkner County, there are footprints, palimpsests,  too. The irregular large lot next to the old Smith Ford building (now housing Kings Live Music) used to be the Old Conway Theater, site of many movies and Conway Community Arts productions. (Yours Truly trod the boards as “Lucy” in “You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown” and as the Gypsy Woman in Neil Simon’s, “The Good Doctor.”) It was featured in the movie, “9 30 55,” but even that didn’t save it from the wrecking ball. The building was too far gone to save, as pigeons had been roosting in the rafters for years and created a heavy flooring of guano, 9-12 inches deep in the attic. It was a fire hazard and death trap and much beloved by a generation of misfit theatre nerds that found a home.  Everything about that building is gone save its peculiar dog-legged footprint and a few ceramic tiles stuck to the brick near what was once the front entrance.

Even in the ghostly there/not there that is the realm of the palimpsest, the Old Conway Theater has its subset of memory hauntings. Segregation. Though I do not know the specific dates that racially divided every aspect of living in Conway, Arkansas, I do know that black movie goers were only allowed in the balcony. (Conway desegregated its schools in the 1965-66 school year. They combined the Pine Street Community Schools and Conway Public Schools starting with the high school and then each school year afterwards desegregating lower grades.) What does this say about us? Should the structure be mourned? No. And. Yes.

We theatre waifs and weirds re-purposed it and made it a place of the creative other. A liminal space with portals and dangers and mothers who trusted us to wander safely. It was a haven, precariously housed under tons of pigeon guano and the poops of many species. It should have been allowed to out grow its segregated past. Should its history be written about? Yes. Absolutely. All of it. The good, bad, ugly and unearthed.