Close Up

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This past week, our assignment for International Reporting was to take three photos of anything you want and then bring them into class to share.

Skeptic as I am, I interpreted this to mean: Don’t come in here toting pictures of your cat and serious artistic shots of your boyfriend. The context of the assignment was: get out there and take very close up photos of people you don’t know very well.

Have you ever actually tried to take a very close up picture of a complete stranger? There are several ways this can go:

  • They look at you like you are invading their space (which you are)
  • They ask why you are taking their picture
  • They let it go/tell you you had better delete that photo if you know what’s good for you

That last one actually happened to me in Paris. I was in one of the flea markets, trying to make a short video, when this old man whose art I had been shooting came up and yelled at me to delete the footage and made me show him that I actually had.

I hadn’t actually deleted it, although I don’t think I used any of his stuff in the final video project.

It’s a weird ethical place to be in. Like, I’m not going to go up to every vendor at the marketplace and have them sign a waiver allowing me to film. So you play it by ear and you brace yourself for the yellings-at by old men.

I was feeling some of that old hesitation during this assignment. I knew I wanted close-ups of strangers–I think they are very compelling and some of the hardest shots to get–but I was having trouble being brave enough to actually get close.


The first shot I took was this woman on the train at the top of this post. When you think like a photographer, suddenly you notice these smaller, quieter beauties around you. The woman knitting was sitting right next to me. We were practically touching. I almost didn’t see her, but then I did and I got my camera out and tried to take as many pictures as I could as inconspicuously as possible.

Growing up, I remember hearing over and over that Native Americans were afraid to have their pictures taken because they thought the camera was stealing their souls. Looking back, that sounds less like a Native American thing and more like a thing white people wanted to believe about Native Americans, but the concept makes sense. Cameras make people uneasy. Once someone has your image, they can manipulate it in many ways.

Should I have asked that woman if it was okay to take her picture? Maybe I should have. But maybe asking her would have ruined the moment. Or maybe she would have said no.

But maybe that’s her right.

I had consent for the other pictures I took, although I don’t think they are as beautiful as that shot of the women. A plumber came to fix my kitchen sink and it occurred to me that this would make a great photo opportunity.

“Do you mind if I take your picture?” I asked.

“Of course not,” he said, with a thick Slavic accent. “Make me famous.”

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