Sunday, January 5, 2014

Fingers poised? Look before you leap - I mean click

His Eyes Doing the Talking (Perth Australia January 2014)

I wonder, have you heard about the columnist at a major metropolitan newspaper in Australia who was ‘let go’ because she sent some ‘controversial’ messages via Twitter while at a TV awards night? No? Well I’m not surprised: it’s hardly Earth shattering, and it isn’t really important on any number of levels if you ask me.
What I want to talk about here is a follow up opinion piece I read a few days later. In it the commentator, while putting the responsibility squarely on the offending Twitterer, writes, ‘... the availability and immediacy of the technology intrude upon the normal choices and judgments which people make.’ He adds: services like Twitter, Facebook, emails and the rest, ‘bring into the public realm many things that would previously remain private.’

Of course, he’s right there isn’t he? You read all sorts of stuff out there in cyberland and it ‘ain’t all pretty, as the saying goes. This guy goes on to say that we are at ‘an evolutionary disjunct between old notions of the public and private spheres and the means of communications now widely available.’

Therefore it seems to follow that it’s not your fault if you blurt out something that you might later regret or that is offensive or libellous or otherwise insensitive. Or is it? Well, of course it is. You, like me and everyone else, are responsible for what we say and do whether it’s online or in person or on a postcard!

Anyway, the writer of this opinion piece then tells a story about US president Franklin Roosevelt. As we all know Roosevelt had polio and used a wheelchair. However, for public speeches he stood with ‘discreet assistance’. Apparently, one day he actually fell over and lay sprawled and helpless in front of the assembled Washington press corp. Of the dozens of photographers there guess how many took a photo? Go on guess.

Not one. That’s right: no photographer thought it was relevant; they all—each and every one of those hungry ‘vultures’—judged that it was a personal matter and therefore not to be reported. You can bet that if a world leader fell in front of the cameras today it would be in your inbox, on YouTube and plastered all over the Internet before he or she was back on his or her feet.

You know me: I'm always on the street, making photographs of the people I encounter there, making a record of all those little moments that usually just pass us by. But, as I point my camera towards a person or group or "something about to happen", I sometimes hesitate before pressing the shutter button. Why? Well because there isn't a photo to make. Simple really when you say it like that. It could be that what I thought I saw isn't there. Or perhaps I notice something that would set the person up for ridicule or make them look bad. Sometimes it's just that I go kind of "blah": nothing there for my camera.

So, I don't press the shutter.  And it is moments like these that remind me: those Washington photographers made the same choice: there was no photograph, so no need to press the shutter.

As you have probably worked out already, I have always thought that if there was one tool that shouted ‘availability and immediacy’ it’s the camera. This isn’t a new idea: it’s about the decisive moment and all that. Photography 101 you might say. And, of course, it's a foundation stone of my chosen art of street photography.

So how come it’s so different with the buttons on your mouse or your mobile? Especially as you have to type a message into the keypad before you get to send it. If you ask me that’s a lot less immediate than the camera shutter. What I’m getting at here in my usual long-winded fashion is this: if those photographers could make the decision in the heat of the moment to not press the button, why do we need to make excuses for us ‘modern types’ with our keyboards and mobile keypads and whatever?

Of course, the answer is we don’t. As I said, we are all responsible for what we say and do. I suppose a good motto to follow in our online or other communications—and in life generally— would be ‘Do No Harm’. Or at least, do as little harm as possible.

Now, I am not saying here that I’ve never said anything on Twitter, or on Facebook or any other place, that was hurtful or insensitive or judgemental or in other ways just not good to say. Mind you, I think that on the whole I pretty much stick to my little motto, Do No Harm (it’s not mine of course, I just adopted it).

And for those times when I have failed, I apologise very sincerely. I do not make excuses; I can choose to press send or click OK or whatever after I’ve typed a message (note my italics please), just as I can choose to press my camera’s shutter button.

Let’s not have any more of this ‘evolutionary disjunct’ stuff. Though, when you think about it, we actually are at a lot of those type of places right now, don’t you think? It’s just that I would rather not use this particular disjunct (I love this word) as an excuse to be sloppy when it comes to how I communicate with friends and strangers alike in cyberspace, or in terrestrial space, or even in my head!

I originally posted this article on my now almost defunct blog, Dharma Dreaming a couple of years ago (I'm thinking of reviving it, but can't say for sure just yet). I have only made little changes to the original, and I reckon it's probably even more relevant and timely now than it was then. And it has a lot to do with my life as a street photographer, and as a human being!

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