How to Freeze a Moment in Time

Great photos in journalism involve moments that only happen once.  They involve people, in moments that are terrible or vulnerable or triumphant, moments when people are at their most human.  They are moments that some do not want frozen in time, because photos write histories, and they can be dangerous. They are dangerous because they don’t really tell stories.  They only show moments without context, but that doesn’t stop anyone from building a story around them.  That’s why people always smile in front of the camera. Moments that last forever should be good ones.

These moments are rare.  Most of the time, my goal as an amateur photojournalist is simply to capture a sense of the setting, or to try and preserve a personality.  I try to shoot everyday life, to shoot faces whose lines can tell stories my words never could. I try and take a few photos that can give my viewers the vaguest glimpse of life in a small Indian village, or the adrenaline and boredom of a rescue effort in the Georgian mountains. It is a difficult art.  One has to be patient, to wait for many different elements of a story—the emotion, the scenery, the people—to come together in a single frame.  When the moment does come, one has to be willing to swallow the moral warning bells that sound, telling them to respect privacy and sanctity of emotion, and focus on the settings on the camera.

Every once in a while, I’m given that opportunity, a chance to take a really good photo.  I’m given a moment where someone is vulnerable.  If I snap it just right, I have the opportunity to write part of a story with light, or at least give my viewers enough a sense of the emotion and setting that they can write a story around it.

When I see the moment, two things happen.  I reach for my camera, switching the aperture and exposure time.  Then people start screaming at me.  They don’t want the photo taken.  The moment is crumbling, and I’ve got half a second to decide whether or not to shoot.  Ethics have to be instinctive in photojournalism.

This happened to me just after I’d landed in Mumbai, and I was trying to take a shot for my post about arriving in India.  I was hanging out the door of a train, camera to my eye, trying to capturea sense of the trains moving past each other with everyone leaning out. The trains define Mumbai.  You can see everything in the city from them: all types of people hanging out the doors for fresh air, the slums with their blue tarp roofs and inhabitants defecating by the tracks, the skyscrapers of the wealthy. All of Mumbai packs into these trains, except the skyscraper owners, and they are so unregulated that they kill thousands ever year.  People just forget to move out of the way for a speeding train, or fall out the doors that don’t close.

The train I was on stopped right as I triggered the shutter.It started moving, slowly, over a bridge that spanned a drainage canal, which was essentially a sewer that got washed out by rainwater.  There, down in the muck, a group of slum dwellers were pulling out a body of a murder or a train victim.It was everything horrible about India: the body, the train tracks, the men in the open sewer with their creased faces stained brown. I reached for my camera.  The men in the ditch yelled, and some of the men on the train scolded.  I hesitated for just a moment too long, and I did not take the picture.  It was less out of respect for the dead as of respect for the yelling, and the urgency of the men pressed around me that asked me not to shoot.

Two and a half months later, I came back to Mumbai, and was walking down a boulevard when another moment presented itself.  It was a naked boy peeing on the sidewalk, all the filth of India swimming in the river behind him.  I reached for my camera.  People on both sides of the sidewalk were yelling.  I was good enough to ignore them this time, and I took the picture.   I’m glad I did.

The intrusion on the boy’s privacy made me feel a little gross. The picture freezes him in time and in poverty, a filthy slum kid with little hope.  But sometimes I have to seek out the horrible along with the good, and to take those golden moments—the ones that can build a story—as they come.  It is the intrusion and the rawness that captures the imagination.

Journalism, Travel AdventuresPermalink

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