On Being an Invisible Photographer

Alex Wroblewski.

A strange, yet calming aspect of photography is relegating oneself to the invisible. Some of the best images come when the photographer is unseen, just another part of scenery that the subject sees or perhaps doesn’t see, but doesn’t consciously recognize. Photography can be collaborative, but it is in some cases a lonely pursuit. You go out with your camera and take images as only you can see them, and then you go home to edit those images on your computer. It’s you with the world and then you with the screen towards some type of end. You are the author of these images, but that authorship in certain genres is predicated on being unseen, on being invisible, though that invisibility isn’t as obvious as you might think.

Invisibility something new photographers have to internalize, particularly if they’re looking to jump into genres in which they don’t set up the shot like on the street, at an event, during a documentary project or anywhere else you don’t want posed pictures. It’s paramount to not get between the camera and the image metaphorically speaking. It’s a given that being present somewhere changes that environment. By virtue of your being there, you’ve affected the photograph in some small way, but you can do your best to minimize how you’ve affected that photograph.

Say you’ve got a new photographer at a party. She’s been paid to document the thing, and she knows that those posed smiling photos are a no-go. Besides, who really stands in place three or four abreast smiling in one direction? It’s a forced way of saying, “We’re having a great time!” There’s a rule in creative writing that goes, “Show, don’t tell.” Don’t tell us what happened, show us what happened. Transpose that to this instance of a new photographer at a party, and you’ll have shots of people in the moment, where it actually looks they’re enjoying the shindig. Of course, there’s something of a give and take at events where photography is expected as people tend to be more open socially. Moving naturally through the space and having a keen eye means that our fledgling photographer can get the right images without being conspicuous about them.

Fuji T64

With regards to long-term projects, invisibility takes on a different form because it’s not necessarily about consigning oneself to the shadows or being unseen because the photographer is often as much a part of the project as the subject(s) are. People tend to be naturally apprehensive when a camera is brought out. Who’s taking the picture? Why are they taking it? Where is it going to go? Can I trust this person? That last question is crucial because it determines whether or not whomever you’re photographing will be open to you. Developing a rapport with your subject helps you develop an invisibility that comes with being familiar. Your camera becomes a point of connection, and with that trust, that familiarity, you can take pictures of people who are fully themselves in your presence.

Becoming invisible is something that can be learned, much in the same way a camera and lighting can be learned, but it requires fluidity of movement, a rapport, and an ability to adapt. You don’t become fully unseen, but you’re not given a second thought, which frees you up to take pictures as you see fit.