My friend was planning to run the Berlin marathon in September, 2008, and he and I scheduled a backpacking trip around it, but, due to illness, he was unable to participate in the marathon. He wanted to go and see it, and I was happy to, hoping to capture some of the emotion that would inevitably accompany such an amazing achievement. The area just past the finish line was blocked off to outsiders, but I was determined to sneak in there, and after a couple of failed attempts, we did.
When I saw this couple, I immediately took a frame, following the mantra of “Shoot first, ask questions later.” They had just crossed the finish line, and both were clearly absolutely exhausted, and this woman, in particular, appeared to be overwhelmed by the physical ordeal of running so far.
Having never run a marathon myself, I can’t claim to understand what she was going through at this moment, but I’m guessing it was a mixture of the elation of accomplishment and an utter depletion of all of her physical resources. I suspect that the act of driving yourself to do something so physically taxing can’t help but tear away a lot of the emotional baggage that we carry with us, leaving yourself raw and exposed, completely devoid of any kind of mask. This is exactly the kind of truth that I wanted to capture.
I don’t know what the relationship was between this couple: Maybe they were romantically linked. Maybe they were just old friends. Maybe they had just met, but the extreme circumstances of their encounter stripped away convention, allowing them to break through the usual barriers that keep strangers strange. Regardless, I think that there’s something special here: a shared experience between two human beings, with one comforting the other, frozen at an immensely triumphant and yet completely vulnerable moment.
Just after taking this shot, my friend asked me a question: didn’t I feel like I was being intrusive by photographing people in such a personal situation? Having been caught up in the moment, in the rush in attempting to capture something so pure, so truthful, I hadn’t paused to consider whether or not I should actually be doing it at all.
Well, I thought at the time, this is what photojournalists do. If you hesitate, it’s over. You’ll miss the decisive moment. If I had stopped to ask them if I could take a shot, whether they said yes or not, the truth of that instant would have been gone forever. Good photojournalists must be willing to go where others won’t, to click the shutter when others wouldn’t. Photos taken in exactly these circumstances have changed the world for the better… but the fact is, I’m not a photojournalist. I was just pretending to be one. Nobody was asking me to be there but myself.
Because of my friend’s question, I decided not to post this, but after some time had passed (over two years), I came across this photo again, and decided to go ahead and share it. I’ll admit that there’s absolutely nothing special about this photo technically: I had no knowledge of off-camera flash at the time and my overexposed on-camera fill created some harsh shadows that I’m not a fan of, but I can’t help but be drawn to this image.
I believe that if either of these two people happened to come across this photo, that they would be happy that I had taken it, and even want a copy. As a photographer, I would always prefer to capture subjects looking their best, and I know this isn’t a particularly flattering photo of her, but I think that anybody who sees this will forgive a girl for not looking totally glamorous after just having run over 26 miles.
I have taken a few photos that no one else will ever see, because they were candid shots taken in situations similar to this, and I know that if I was on the other side of the camera, I wouldn’t want others to view them. On one hand, I’m glad that I took them because if I didn’t, those fleeting moments would’ve disappeared forever. On the other hand, perhaps I shouldn’t have taken them at all. I try to reconcile these viewpoints by the knowledge that I was able to capture those moments before they were lost, even if nobody else will ever see them. However, if noone else ever sees the photo, is it really preserved?
Certainly the photographer has a responsibility to consider the viewpoint of the subject of candid photos, or any subject, for that matter. People can often be understandably sensitive about images of themselves being shared without their consent. Then again, if we outlaw any photos taken or shared without the subject’s explicit consent, then we can say goodbye to the wonderful art of street photography practiced by people like Henri Cartier-Bresson and his spiritual descendants. Photojournalism would die, along with the freedom to hold others (civilians and otherwise) accountable for their public behavior by documenting it visually. I may be biased, but I’d rather live in a world where photographers are free to capture and share whatever they see in public spaces, and I’d like to think that most people do not abuse this liberty. I believe the greater good is served by prioritizing the right to take photos over the right to not be photographed, but I take the responsibility of being a photographer very seriously.
The issues raised in the previous paragraph are worthy of at least two separate posts, but since I’m not going to get into that right now, I’ll just close with why I decided to share this particular image: I thought is was worth sharing, and I’m making the judgement call that the subjects wouldn’t mind.
But I could be wrong… what do you think?