11. Making reality fit the vision

Every time we say goodbye

As I see it, there are two basic approaches to photography: reactive and constructive. In the reactive approach, the photographer sees something in his environment and makes a decision to photograph it. Generally, the photographer has limited control over the subject; and often has to respond quickly before the scene changes and the opportunity is lost. Street photography and photo-reportage predominantly use the reactive approach. In the constructive approach, the photographer generally begins with an idea, works out wbat visual elements and visual effects he can use to illustrate that idea, then assembles them and makes the photograph. This approach is more considered and the photographer generally has a much greater degree of control over shooting environment. Commercial photography mostly uses this approach.

But sometimes, the reactive photographer stumbles upon a scene that has potential to tell a story but lacks and essential element. Then, he has no choice but to wait and hope that the element he needs turns up and performs the role the photographer has envisaged.

In the example above, I walked out of a railway station and saw a girl sitting on a step. Something about her posture seemed sad to me; and immediately I began to hear a Cole Porter song running through my head: Every time we say goodbye – the version recorded by Chet Baker. But clearly, the image of the girl sitting on the step would only tell half the story. To complete it, I would need to include in the frame, the person to whom she had said goodbye. So I waited.

I photographed several people in the role of “the other person” but I chose this one because of his body language. The fact that he had one hand in his pocket suggested to me that he was quite relaxed about saying goodbye to the girl. The fact that his other arm was swinging suggested to me that he was not at all reluctant to leave her. He wasn’t looking back sadly. He had made his mind up and he was on his way. As in the earlier image of the two boys, I used the silhouette approach to focus the viewer’s attention on the body language; and in particular, the arms. And with the man in silhouette and the girl with her back to camera, their identities are hidden, suggesting that this image is not about these two specific people but about any couple who are parting.

Of course, that is not what was really happening here. The man and the girl didn’t even know each other. I had just used them to perform in the tableau which had formed in my mind.

A photograph like this is not about specific truth, about an event that actually happened at a specific time in a specific place to an actual couple; it is about a universal truth, that happens to millions of people, all over the world and throughout time. Consequently, when judging an image, I think it is important to identify whether the photographer was attempting to portray actual truth or universal truth before making ones assessment of how successfully the image achieves its aims.


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