Taking a photo of something as it’s happening

Whirling Dervishes

There is a whole body of literature, going back at least to Susan Sontag, that argues against photography. The process of making a photograph distracts you from experiencing the thing itself, distorts the relationship between subject and the viewer, and creates a visual record that is inevitably later perceived as somehow more real than memory. To be honest, I’ve always found these sorts of arguments to be overblown. I let instinct be my guide about when to bring a camera with me (almost all the time) and when to use it. And I couldn’t honestly tell you of a time when I regretted making a photo because of the imposition it created on the experience.

Until this weekend. The Whirling Dervishes of Rumi performed (actually I’m not sure that’s the right verb) at the Arsht Center, and I had a relatively great box seat. The way this works is that the evening is over two hours long, opening with a musical performance, explanations of the meanings of the dance, a movie, more music, then the solemn entrance of the Mevlevi themselves, followed by the actual ceremony. The point is that there is a major buildup of a particular type of a solemn mood, which elevates the already daunting trance-like spiritual weight of the event.

So I wasn’t going to take a picture. And then all these other idiots started in. Now, photography is “strictly prohibited” at the Arsht Center, and having worked around the performing arts I know that the two primary concerns are (1) your photographing distracts the person next to you, and (2) the flash, stupid, which distracts everybody, most especially the performers (which in the case of dance is actually dangerous). Needless to say that there were at least a dozen camera flashes from around the audience. So first of all, you people are stupid. You haven’t read your manual, you don’t know how to control the camera, you have no regard for anyone else but yourself, and you did not get a photograph, because your flash covers approximately three meters (10 feet), and you weren’t sitting in the first few rows (thank Jesus).

But so somehow these idiots made me think that my taking a picture the right way (ISO set to maximum, exposure compensation -2 stops, flash off, autofocus assist light off, sound disabled, continuous shutter on) was somehow permissible. I held my shutter down for about a second, got three frames, and put the camera away. And yes, the moment was destroyed. But you know what? It came back. The thing is that if you’re discreet about this (my friend sitting two seats down didn’t know I took a picture until I showed her later afterward) it’s really not that big of a deal.

There is something to be said here about the trade-off between imposition of technology and quality of photograph (contrast the ubiquity of the cell phone with a 4×5 camera), but mostly a pocket camera is a decent trade off.

The thing that it comes down to for me is that looking at a photograph years later brings back the memory of an event more vividly than anything else. There are many reasons for making a photo, but the marking of something as worthy of vivid memory is perhaps the best.

12 thoughts on “Taking a photo of something as it’s happening

  1. I put acts onstage. This is my particular area of expertise.

    When I advance a show for the Broward Center, I ask the act if they allow their act to be photographed; some do, most don’t.

    If they do, they may request no flash.

    Some acts, although very few, permit video.

    So if, before the show, the audience was asked not to photograph the show, it’s not coming from the Arsht Center, it’s coming from the act. In most cases, it’s to protect the design or artistic elements of a production from unauthorized duplication, or to maintain control of the act’s image.

    So no, Alesh, what you did was not OK. It was a violation of the artists’ rights.

    But it is a nicely done photo.

  2. I had a similar dilemma yesterday, the last day of Spring Festival. I found myself reaching for my camera every time I spotted a series of fireworks. I had to restrain myself from pulling out my camera every time I spotted a new bunch of them.

    When something is so photographable and is happening continuously all around you, it’s tempting to keep photographing. But you gotta draw the line somewhere, so that you can enjoy the mood they’re creating and possibly light one yourself.

    By the way, great photograph!

  3. CL~ I am wrong in the sense that I broke their rules, but you need to understand how little that matters to me. I was concerned on my impact/imposition on the performers (none) and my fellow audience member (minimal, and only on the one guy sitting next to me).

    Silvia~ Right. If you find yourself photographing lots and lots, the dilemma is whether to check yourself or to give in to it, and essentially make the event (for yourself) about being a photographer. But I think it’s just fine to make that decision intuitively and not sweat it. BTW, I loved your fireworks photos.

  4. You didn’t just break their rules, you violated international copyright law.

    BTW, I don’t necessarily agree with all aspects of the law, I’m just saying it is against the law. Civil law; no one can arrest you for it. But you are open to a lawsuit.

  5. The argument that photographing takes away from the experience is wrong and can only come from somebody with no interest in photography. I’m much more involved with a scene if I’m photographing it. The act entails appreciating the lighting, composition, angles and details. It makes you a participant, is limited, rather than just an observer. For example, since I started taking architectural photos, I look up a lot more, or notice more the subtle differences between neighborhoods. Or if you are photographing a performance, you have to anticipate the moment which makes you look intently at what’s happening onstage.

    Video doesn’t work the same way, which is why my video camera has been used only twice.

    As far as the rules, I think they are written for the idiots with the flashes. No rules would mean a lot more flashes. I don’t buy the copyright part, Alesh is not duplicating their performance, just documenting it and he’s not profiting from it.

  6. Alex~ I just disagree. Photographing architecture is different, because you’re experiencing an environment, not an event. But I’ve photographed (in a serious, professional, “doing-my-job” sense) dance, and there is absolutely a trade-off between experiencing and photographing.

    CL~ Copyright laws?? That sounds far fetched. What I know is that in this particular instance the worst imaginable punishment would have been to have an usher ask me to please stop photographing. To say I’m violating copyright is like saying that a person owns the rights to their physical appearance.

  7. That’s a matter of attitude, isn’t it? You came to the event as an spectator and then documented it, which in your mind is a trade off. A tourist could similarly say that looking through the lens makes him disconnected from the city. And yet, you took a burst of photos and you waited until the moment the performers were twirling around which makes it much more photogenic than if they were just standing. By now the technical aspects are second nature to you, so it didn’t take much time or thinking to set the ISO, burst mode, etc. The sensory separation form the experience was minimal but at the same time I’d say enhanced. If you were not emotionally involved you would not have been moved to take a photo. I don’t think it’‘s a trade-off in the sense that you are not experiencing it any less intently.

    It has nothing to do with whether is a scene or an event, especially if you are doing it in a semi-serious or serious way: wildlife photographers, for example, believe is integral part of the experience to catch an animal. Sports photographers would tell you it requires an understanding of the game, knowledge of the tactics and tendencies of a particular team or athlete. There are a million other examples.

    Besides Sontag’s essays have the flaw of elitism (one of her trademarks): she was a well-traveled aesthete with teh means to travel and experience teh world, but the majority of people would not have been exposed to it without photography. The desensitatizing argument is moot, without shocking images there’s no shock value to be lost. She derides the camera-toting tourist which is a facile cliche and again elitist, but the wealthy always had access to pictures. And she doesn’t give the “common” man credit; it’s obvious to anybody that there’s a difference between seeing a photo of the pyramids and seeing it in real life, which is why millions go every year.

  8. Alesh, it’s what I do for a living. This has been my profession for 25 years.

    It has nothing to do with the use of flash, although performers who don’t care about photography do care about flash because it is disruptive.

    Choreography, set, light and costume design are protected by copyright. The production owns all all the rights to all images of their performance. Taking pictures of the performance is a violation of that copyright, and is actionable in civil court.

    And in fact, you agreed to that when you bought your ticket. Purchasing a ticket constitutes making an enforceable contract with the presenter. Go ahead, check it out. You don’t need to take my word for it, but you obviously haven’t done a lick of research into this. I have had to as part of my profession.

  9. CL~

    I know enough to know that issues around copyright are extremely subjective, and very much in flux over the last few years.

    Of course anybody can sue anybody for anything in civil court. Maybe somewhere there’s fine print that lists all sorts of things I agreed to when I bought my ticket. Is it enforceable? First, someone would have to sue me. Even then, if I cared enough I could probably hire a lawyer that’d get the case thrown out pretty easily.

    But in terms of what ACTUALLY HAPPENS IN THE REAL WORLD, let me tell you a story. The first year that the Cleveland Orchestra performed in Miami (same venue) they invited me to attend. I asked for permission to photograph, and it was denied. I took pictures anyway, and subsequently posted them to my blog. The person who’d earlier denied me permission to make the pictures later asked for my permission the company to use the pictures. I of course happily sent her all my original files.

    If you have links to explanations of why the appearance of the sets, lighting, and costumes are copyright and therefore illegal to photograph without permission I’d love to see them. But that story is a much more accurate reflection of how these issues sort themselves in the real world, at least in my experience.

  10. Alesh, you’re welcome to hop onto usenet and ask for cites in rec.arts.theatre.stagecraft.

    But getting away with it once has nothing to do with the legality of it, and your exceptionally shallow excuse for thinking is going to get you in trouble someday.

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