In a recent discussion on this blog (see "Fear of Strangers", ) my friend Christine explained why she doesn't take many pictures of people she doesn't know.
"The reason I don't do more is because then I feel like I owe something back, specifically maybe something like a copy, and I just don't have time to do that anymore. Or I owe that my use of the photo won't have any negative impact on them, including embarrassment ... So my overactive sense of responsibility to my 'subject' most often stops me."
"Boy with toy grenade," Diane Arbus, All rights reserved
Reading Christine's comment, I thought of the famous Diane Arbus picture above. A few years ago -- in the "Diane Arbus Revelations" show at the Met -- I saw the contact sheet that contains this shot. The other images -- the ones Arbus didn't choose -- are very disimilar from this one. In those too, the boy is very thin & nervous-looking ; he's wearing the same extremely odd little lord fauntelroy outfit (probably his mother's idea); but in other respects he's just a boy politely posing for pictures. Because he's been asked. Arbus chose this frame, as any photographer would, because it's the most graphic, by far the most dramatic. It's a brilliant picture. It's more than a likeness of a boy in a park. It connects to a larger, more complicated story -- arguably a very important story. But what about the actual boy's story?
The Wikipedia entry on Arbus describes the making of this picture as follows: "Arbus captured this photograph by having the boy stand while moving around him, claiming she was trying to find the right angle. The boy became impatient and told her to 'Take the picture already!' " This account, for which no source is given, sounds a little too pat for me. She's "claiming" to try to find the right angle? He goes at her in pure lower east side New Yorkese? Please. But -- lose the cheap accusation & the dialog -- it could be essentially true. Arbus was a photographer, excitedly working. Of course she was moving around the boy, trying to find her shot, a better shot, another... I can imagine the boy reacting with exasperation.
Nevertheless -- the contact sheet makes it clear -- this boy with a grenade was no maniac. He was a boy playing in the park. So whose responsibility is the impression the picture conveys? The problem is not with the shooting; it's not even with the showing. It's with the seeing. The problem -- if there is a problem -- is what goes on in the mind of the viewer. What could Arbus do about that? What can any photographer? In Arbus's case the firestorm of vituperation leveled at this & her other so-called "explotative" pictures by detractors could not have been predicted. I've never doubted her sympathy for those she photographed. But she was clearly ambitious. Did she ever, I wonder, worry what the boy felt when other people looked at his picture? Was this her reponsibility? Is it ours?