Putting down our “lenses”

Putting down our “lenses”

Nikkormat and 50mm lens. Photo by Ryan Anderson 2020.

Years ago I read an article about a photographer. I don’t actually remember who the photographer was, but this story has stayed with me. I have been looking for this article for years, but I haven’t been able to find it. This story affected how I thought about and practiced photography, which was my first endeavor, and it has shaped my approach to my second endeavor, which is anthropology.

So, the story was about a documentary photographer. Like anthropologists, they tend to spend a lot of time observing, documenting, and analyzing human behavior. This becomes an entrenched part of everyday practice. One of the challenges is learning how and when to turn off that analytical and documentary habit. In this story, the photographer’s wife gets a phone call. It’s not a good phone call. She receives devastating, terrible news. And what does the photographer do? He instinctively reaches for his camera to document the moment. My recollection is that the photographer ended up having a breakdown eventually stepping back from documentary work for a while.

While I am not sure about some of the details of this story, what I am sure about is the effect it had upon me. It’s striking how a story like this can be so influential. Before that I had never been highly driven to get into people’s faces and capture their intimate joys and losses. I just can’t do it. While I respect photographers who do this work (depending on how they go about it), it’s not my style. This story solidified what I would call a pretty non-intrusive approach to photography.

My photographic education included a lot of discussion of the work of documentary photographers such as Dorthea Lange, Walker Evans, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, Gordon Parks, and more recent artists such as Mary Ellen Mark and Sebastiao Salgado. I have a lot of respect for much of this work, but I am also ambivalent and skeptical about many aspects of it as well. Susan Sontag’s On Photography gets into some of these issues regarding Salgado’s work. I understand and appreciate the need–and the power–of documenting humanity. But–and this is the big lesson I got from that one little story–there are moments when it is best to just put the camera down.

For me this story clearly relates to anthropology, a discipline, like documentary photography, that explores human lives, histories, and behaviors. We anthropologists study just about everything that humans do or have done, past and present. Maybe it’s partly a result of this breadth, but sometimes we find it difficult not to always be “on,” always analyzing, always seeing things through the lens of anthropology. In many ways I think this is good…but sometimes we also need to take a break, step back, and put away that anthropological gaze.

For many among us, this is clearly one of those times.

Taking a break and putting down our anthropological lenses goes against the grain of many aspects of our disciplinary socialization, and the publish or perish model that governs much of academic life. But it’s good to remind ourselves that we can stop. Or, we should be able to stop. There are times when we can and should put down our “lenses”. We don’t have to theorize or document or think through every moment in times like these. Sometimes other things matter more, whether it’s our personal health, our families, our communities. Or just trying to get through the day. We don’t always need to produce, and we don’t always need to be on. And despite all the pressure, the academic production machine can wait. If it can’t wait, we have to make it wait. If anthropology doesn’t have room for our humanity, health, and well-being, then we need to transform it until it does.