Eileen Kern

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Personal Photography in Three Acts

Act I: Nostalgia and Photo-Technology

When I was a child, I had this great pink camera. It required film and had a fixed lens. Most of the time, if I was trying to shoot something at least 5-10 feet away from me, it came out okay. I was always puzzled–understanding nothing about how cameras work–when I tried to take close-up pictures of bugs and flowers and they came out a complete blur.

I had the pleasure of taking Physics for Photographers in college (officially named “Light and Color”) and learning more about optics and lenses. I now have, in active use, both a phone camera and a DSLR.

And my phone camera stacks up extremely competitively against that old pink film camera (while I can’t get every picture in focus, I can at least see which ones didn’t work in real time).

I love the depth and clarity I can get with my DSLR, but I don’t always want to lug my camera bag around or go to the trouble of switching lenses.

Shot with my DSLR, kit lens

I just think sometimes of how amazing it is that, in my childhood, we would consider ourselves lucky to get 10 great pictures from a field trip or birthday party. Maybe we would even shoot two entire rolls for a big event.

Today, sometimes I will take six or seven shots of my cat, trying to get the best focus and frame considering the lighting and other elements of the shot.

He’s worth it:

Shot with my camera phone and uploaded to Instagram with no filters

Act II: The Politics of Photographs

Copyright rules and ethics have not kept up with the Internet age, and this is important because the average Internet citizen is not necessarily prepared to have conversations about photographs and copyright.

I went to a friend’s wedding armed with my then-new DSLR. I deliberately spent much of the cocktail hour taking the best photographs I could. When I posted my album on Facebook, I felt successful and flattered when other guests changed their Facebook profile picture to photos taken by me.

As the photographer, these are my images. As a friend, I don’t mind if the subjects want to repost, download, or print these pictures. If I’m being honest, I do not even expect my friends to take the time to attribute these images to me if they repost them (though I certainly would appreciate the credit and attempt to provide source information myself when possible).

The subject of a photograph also has certain rights, such as the “right of publicity.” Also, as a person who is wary of the Internet, I personally make choices on a case-by-case basis about whether I feel comfortable posting pictures I’ve taken of other people online. (I generally try to restrict access to these photographs through settings such as “Friends Only,” and appreciate when others do the same for pictures of me.) And, of course, I would be more than willing to take down photographs that I post if asked.

I feel like there are a few special cases that require particular consideration from amateur photographers:

  • Posting pictures of other peoples’ children. Use common sense, and remember that many parents have strong feelings about this issue. If you are the photographer, it is best to ask the child’s parent how he or she feels. If you are the parent, don’t wait to be asked.
  • Dealing with “No Photography Allowed.” If photography is explicitly forbidden somewhere, you likely want to respect that request.
  • Capturing something illegal or questionable on camera. The simplest example of this would be a picture of someone who is under 21 drinking. Don’t post the picture. Just don’t take it in the first place.
  • Remembering that other people have jobs and want to keep them. A teacher might not want her students to be able to find that picture of her at a bar with friends, even if nothing “bad” happened. Remember that people in different professions and organizations are held to different standards regarding conduct (on and off the clock), and if you are in doubt, ask before posting pictures from a party.

Act III: Living in the Moment

I don’t want to make too much out of Dr. Linda Henkel’s 2013 study on photography and recall. Responsible resources frame Henkel’s study in the appropriate context–memory of art in a museum context–when covering her research (e.g. “No Pictures, Please: Taking Photos May Impede Memory of Museum Tour” from Psychological Science).

Henkel found that gaps in memory increased when participants in her study took full pictures of artworks (rather than simply look at them)–but did not increase when participants were instructed to “zoom” to take a picture of only a section of the piece of art. In short, the “photographer as collector” mentality does not support the creation of memories as well as the “photographer as artist” or “non-photographer” approaches do. One cannot responsibly conclude from Henkel’s research that all photography is unhelpful to memory.

In an interview on NPR’s All Things Considered, Henkel said this:

I think taking pictures is a wonderful thing to do because it provides such rich retrieval cues later on. So, when you take a picture of you standing next to the Grand Canyon, those are the clothes you were wearing and that is what the Grand Canyon looked like that day. I think it’s just a matter of taking more mindful pictures, taking pictures that you want to remember, or just really reassessing why you’re taking photos.

However, there is also a selfish and practical reason to put down the camera once in a while: If you’re constantly behind the camera, you may forget to participate in the event. If there are other photographers around, you may also want them to be able to catch you doing more than just pressing the shutter. Unless you are the dedicated photographer, you may be better off taking the few shots that matter to you and spending the rest of the event living in the moment.

photographer photographer
Excerpts from photos of a friend’s wedding: Yours truly with camera in hand.
Original photos by Blue Sky Photography, Wappingers Falls, NY.