Beyond the Snapshot

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July 14, 2017 at 9:00 am  •  Posted in In the Magazine, Inspiration by  •  0 Comments

Beyond the Snapshot: In Search of Stolen Moments

by Patrick La Roque

You wake up one morning as you do every single day; the kids are getting ready for school or your spouse is dressing for work…perhaps you’re on your own, making coffee. The banal mechanics of existence. But for the first time in years, you realize the light in this particular room is beautiful—maybe it’s the sun streaming in at a ­certain angle or the shadows cast by a bedside lamp. Nothing has changed since yesterday, but you’re somehow noticing. You pick up the camera and start shooting, really shooting—the way you’d capture an amazing autumn scene, an eclipse or a gothic cathedral in Spain. You move around; you find the angle. A few instants in the midst of your daily grind. Reality, suddenly revealed.

Daydreaming while getting ready to do ­homework. Fujifilm X-T1, 18 mm, f/3.2, 1/100 s, ISO 2500. © Patrick La Roque

We rarely do this. Most of all because—let’s face it—we find our lives uninteresting. Boring even. Certainly not interesting enough for any serious, deliberate visual exploration. And when we do point the camera toward our loved ones and ourselves, it’s often to capture something that strays from the so-called “ordinary”: a birthday, a recital, a football game—something special. Maybe the occasional portrait. Breakfast on a weekday? Not so much. The unassuming movements of our lives are either ­forgotten or confined to that ugly stepchild of photography: the ­snapshot.

Faster than a speeding bullet

Okay, there’s nothing wrong with the ­snapshot: it’s a tried and true tradition, ­filling shoeboxes and Facebook streams with memories. But we tend not to put much thought into it.

The Oxford Dictionary defines the term as “an informal photograph; usually made with a small handheld camera.” And the etymology of the word is interesting: it originally referred to “a quick shot with a gun, without aim, at a fast-moving target.” (Fun fact: “snapshot” only became a ­photographic term in the 1900s after the introduction of the Kodak Brownie.)

On the surface this sounds fine, but we all know that definition carries a subtext. “Informal” implies amateurish; “small handheld” means cheap. In today’s world of performance-driven smartphones and envelope-pushing compact-system cameras, this no longer reflects the actual scope of the work being created. Great photography isn’t bound by those rules anymore. In reality, an “informal photograph” can be the key to intimacy, and a “small handheld camera” can mean access that would otherwise be denied, without compromising the quality. What truly matters is intent—that’s the dividing line. Vision. It’s not about location, subject, big cameras or small cameras; it all comes down to the way we shoot and how we engage.

How do we transcend the snapshot? Well, the word’s gun-nomenclature origins tell us: by taking aim.

In reality, an “informal photograph” can be the key to intimacy, and a “small handheld ­camera” can mean access that would ­otherwise be denied, without compromising the quality. What truly matters is intent—that’s the dividing line. Vision.

A lazy weekend afternoon. Fujifilm X-Pro1, 35 mm, f/8, 1/400s, ISO 400. © Patrick La Roque

Thievery

Photographers are moment thieves—it’s the very definition of what we do, regardless of the subject. But we don’t always apply our skills to everything we shoot, and that’s a pity. We should; it’s what taking aim is all about. Instead of dismissing our everyday lives with quick, haphazard, possibly stilted snapshots, why not challenge ourselves and instead explore daily life as documentarians hunting for stolen moments? It’s a subtle shift in perspective, but it can potentially transform our entire approach.

In our household with three young kids and days that constantly move at the speed of light, this idea of stolen moments reminds me of our world’s insanely transient nature, the fleetingness of life, and the need to rescue at least a few fragments of it from the frenzied storm of our schedules. It’s a warning to slow everything down, breathe, stop and look around before it all inevitably disappears. Because it will.

This may sound clichéd, but an awareness of our surroundings and every situation’s potential for visual stories should always be at the heart of how we embrace the world as photographers. Honing our eye by finding images in the most mundane contexts is a skill that will inevitably translate to the rest of our craft, whether we shoot landscapes, portraits or street photography, or we simply wish to capture better pictures of the ones we love. It’s a fantastic way to develop our instincts and visual reflexes; ultimately, it’s about seeing—at all times.

It’s normal to get jaded. Palaces, mermaids, flying monkeys…it doesn’t matter. Wherever we live, whatever we do, if we hang around long enough, eventually we simply stop seeing what’s in front of us. However, treating life as a sort of assignment—not just the extraordinary bits, but all of it—can help us rediscover these commonplace settings.

Photographers are moment thieves—it’s the very definition of what we do, regardless of the subject. But we don’t always apply our skills to everything we shoot, and that’s a pity. We should; it’s what taking aim is all about. Instead of dismissing our everyday lives with quick, ­haphazard, possibly stilted snapshots, why not challenge ourselves and instead explore daily life as documentarians hunting for stolen moments? It’s a subtle shift in perspective, but it can potentially transform our entire approach.

Our daughter getting ready for bed. Fujifilm X-E2, 56 mm, f/1.2, 1/125 s, ISO 1600. © Patrick La Roque

While there are no sure-fire recipes for this type of work, certain things are worth keeping in mind.

  • Embrace randomness and spontaneity. Don’t look for perfection or try to control every aspect of a situation. Don’t stop events from happening naturally. As John Lennon once sang, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” The most interesting and revealing images are often found in the interstices—the in-between moments when people’s guards are down and they’ve forgotten about the camera.
  • Blend in; respect the situation and your subjects. Sometimes you’ll want to interact and play with them, and other times you’ll need to retreat like a fly on the wall to let stories unfold on their own. This isn’t about trapping anyone in an uncomfortable situation; it’s about accessing a certain truth that all too often gets lost in a formal setting. Reading the moment and reacting accordingly can go a long way towards achieving this goal.
  • Use the fastest lens you own. If you’re shooting indoors, the benefits will be obvious, but beyond light sensitivity, it’ll enable you to control depth of field in any situation and create much more varied points of view. If it’s a prime, go for it and don’t be afraid to zoom with your feet. Most fast 50-mm lenses are small and incredibly ­inexpensive; they should be a staple for any photographer looking to dive into documentary work of any kind. And this IS what we’re talking about here: documentary work.
  • Look for details. That’s where the Devil is, right? In familiar surroundings details are the first victims; our brains just stop registering them. A furtive glimpse, a hand clutching a toy, beads of dew on a window—focusing on smaller details can often provide a fresh perspective on the whole.
  • Don’t worry. Seriously. We all tend to overthink, and this is easily creativity’s worst enemy. Don’t anticipate how many likes you might get, and don’t get hung up on right or wrong. No one’s life is on the line, and the worst that can happen is that you have a few unsuccessful images that no one will ever see. Get back on that horse. Eventually, with focus, narratives will emerge and great photographs may appear that would not have seen the light of day otherwise.

We make choices in ­photography. We decide what to remember or silence and what to imbue with stillness.

Caught mid-skip on a summer day. Fujifilm X100T, 23 mm, f/2.8, 1/450 s, ISO 200. © Patrick La Roque

Choices and legacy

We make choices in photography. We decide what to remember or silence and what to imbue with stillness. Our lives—as ordinary as they may be—are ongoing documentaries unfolding before us, full of big and small stories that shape and define who we are. We should capture this, because it’s the stuff that matters. It’s what we’ll look back on years from now as we long to remember the way things were, beyond the milestones. And even today it might bring us insight and allow us to connect to others in ways we wouldn’t have expected. We might ­discover a new world lurking beneath the surface, filled with faces we always see but rarely capture.

So forget the snapshot. Stop telling ­everyone to hold still and smile for the camera and let them be—happy, angry or lost in the vagaries of their minds. Find a truth worth remembering and go ahead…steal away.

This article by Patrick La Roque was originally published in the February/March 2016 issue of Photo Life. Subscribers can download the whole issue from the digital archives.

 

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