A Photographer's Moral Dilemma: Getting in and out of the Field

A Photographer's Moral Dilemma: Getting in and out of the Field

Photographing a certain group of people or documenting lives and events can be really exciting. It can also be emotionally confusing, because we frequently have to enter a field and also leave it after a while.

Relationships in Photography

Generally in photography, we should aim at having a good idea about what we are doing. When we have people in front of our lens, it gets even more tricky. Suddenly, we don’t make an image on our own, where we only depend on the light and look of the subject. We also have another character in front of us, which needs to cooperate for a successful shooting. Having access to the other person in a physical and psychological way is an essential factor for our images. In some areas of photography, money connects people in form of a shared interest. It’s their job to model for you. If you like each other it’s even better. But what if people don’t have such a relationship to you?

In documentary photography, you simply have to build it. If you want to cover a topic that involves humans, you need them to cooperate. As long as you don’t shoot images secretly, which I hope you don’t, you need to invest your time. In some projects, which are more photojournalistic, this can be done quickly. Maybe the people are interested in having their photographs shared out there. Then, they will let you discover their space and you will get an entrance into their life.

I tried a whole week to find a fisherman who'd take me out on a fishing trip in Puri, India. Still, no one would take me to the high seas.

Stay Long, Make Friends, Dig Deep

Other projects need more work. You have to explain your ideas and simply be kind to earn people’s trust. Trust takes time, especially when we deal with sensitive topics. People are used to smile for the camera. Going beyond smiling portraits can make them uncomfortable, if you didn’t give them time to get to know you. I feel, that it is often better to first leave the camera at home. Get to know people’s lives through their eyes, before your present them through your camera. The more time you spend with people, the more interesting facts you will get to know. When people trust you, they share deeper stories, thoughts, and emotions with you.

The field in which you do photography is not just a physical one. It is a social space that needs to be understood. It’s structure, hierarchy, emotion, and belief. We all have heard that a portrait gets better if we get closer to the subject. That’s not just true for portraying individuals, but also for groups or social facts. Understanding what is going on in the field enables us to create a deeper insight through our photographic medium. Be aware of what’s going on behind the curtains.

Most people know the images of Holi, the festival of colours. I decided to celebrate it in the suburbs with a family, which I got to know during my stay.

Is Photography Stealing Someone’s Soul?

There will often be skepticism towards a photographer. It’s said that some people don’t want their images to be taken, because they believe that photographers steal their soul. I studied anthropology and traveled a little, but I have never found someone who believes that a photograph will suck the soul out of you. Watching the current selfie culture and the smombies (a compound word of “smartphone” and “zombie”) out there, I might need to think about this argument again, though. On a serious note, I guess there is a valid point in the idea of stealing one’s soul through photography.

A camera has the power to capture the most private moments of people and make it accessible to a wider audience. You might not steal the soul of people in a way that they don’t own it anymore, but you make part of it accessible to others. That can be done in a good way or bad way, depending on you and the feelings of the person in front of the lens. We also talk about “theft” when someone “steals” our images by using them without permission. Even thoughts and ideas can be stolen. Others use them without your permission. When we talk about sharing an insight into people’s lives and character through photography, the thought about a stolen soul becomes less spiritual.

Some ceremonies are easily accessible. Once I asked for permission, it was easy to photograph the Sufi dancers in Pakistan.

Getting in Is Hard, Getting out Is Harder

You worked on your project and you made friends with people who shared their stories with you. They exposed their soul in front of you and you’re moved by their stories. Being confident that you understood what is going on, you took your pictures. And now? Can you share all this information with others? You worked hard on the relationship that made your images so intimate. How could you share them with others, who have no relationship to your subjects, who became your friends? After all, that’s what you came for.

Leaving your field can be an emotional dilemma. You built a relationship for getting good images, but if you are not too cold-hearted, the relationship will not be unidirectional. Wherever people opened their heart for you, you probably also opened your heart for them. Doesn’t it feel like a betrayal when you leave the field with a piece of their souls on your memory card?

Some places are hard to leave. For example the biggest human gathering on earth.

What to Do

Be prepared for that moment. If you find out that it is morally wrong to share some of your images to the world, simply don’t do it. Don’t betray people’s trust. While you’re in the field, also make sure that people don’t forget that you’re not only a friend but also a photographer. Search for their consent and explain to them your point of view. Especially in long-term projects, people will see less of a photographer in you and take it for granted that you do your work. They will just see the results at the very end, though. Every now and then, it’s good to remind them, what you are doing. Try not to be sneaky, you will regret it later.

You will also need to prepare yourself to leave the field. Photographers are humans and will also become emotionally attached. Some fields are easy to leave. You shake hands, say “thank you”, and publish your images. When you spent a while in the field and made deeper connections, leaving will be harder, though. I am still involved in some projects, where I did documentary work. I make phone calls to former participants and try to support other’s cases. I feel attached to some people, I worked with. These are the things that will happen to you, once you got involved into others’ stories. After all, you will also leave a part of your own soul in the field.

Nils Heininger's picture

Nils Heininger is a photographer on the road. He loves long rides on motorbikes, camels and old trains. While discovering the world, he uses his camera to share stories from people across the globe. With a Micro-four thirds in his pocket and a full-frame in his bag, he's always ready for new adventures.

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I'm feeling a lot this, I usually like to shoot more landscapes but on my recent trip to Madagascar I found myself having more interests in photographing people, and it was always a battle inside my mind because I knew I was taking pictures of a person, with its own life and love and feelings, but it felt like they were an attraction and it really feels bad but then again I felt the need to document what I was seeing, so much poor kids mostly living alone with t-shirts that had more holes than fabric. And all this made me want to try to do something and maybe do an exposition with my pictures to try to raise some money for them.

I don't know how I missed this one. This is a fantastic article, Nils! It's so easy, especially when traveling on a tight schedule, to move politely past people rather than intentionally making the effort to collide with them a little, to take the time to gain their trust and invade their personal space enough to really learn something about them, from them. The difference shows in your work. I love your photos for the patient intimacy of the stories they tell.

Thanks again, mate. You write comments as nice as your articles. 😅