Exposed: Anticipating the Shot
This post is not so much about the story behind the image above, but about the “how” behind the image. I have been thinking a bit about what it takes to see “the image” before hand. I am not talking about telepathy. What I mean is when you go into a location to shoot, or when you shoot a given subject is there a difference between the familiar and the new? Of course there is. I was reminded about this after this past weekend. Our photo walk took us to many Chinese temples and neighborhoods where I struggled to see the shot. Well, not so much struggled to see the shot as struggled to anticipate the shot. This is the point; anticipating. Later, near the end of the walk I found myself kneeling next too a mosque door and knowing what to shoot and when to shoot. Thus the above image.
It’s about the moment. The blink of the eye, the millisecond of the shutter. As Henri Cartier-Bresson wrote “There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment.” The more we are familiar with our surroundings, the more we stay a few seconds ahead of our subject and anticipate the next action or move, the better our image will be. We can prepare for the precise moment, at least to some degree.
I have lived in Penang, Malaysia for just over a year. Over this time I have spent far too much time in my office working on NGO projects and not enough time in the streets with the people of this place. I have visited a few of the Chinese temples in the area and have learned a few things about the culture, but still woefully short of my knowledge of Islam. About now, you might be wondering why this is important? Knowledge of who, what and where you are shooting is key to anticipating the shot. Here’s how it works.
You know people. You know that when you raise a camera to their face they will most likely either smile or turn their head away. In Asia there are a few well chosen poses that you might receive. If you are observing to men arguing and getting into each others face, you know from experience that one of them, if it keeps going, might put his finger in the others face or even push the other. You can anticipate it because you know your culture and how it works. So you get your camera ready. (Here is where you need to know your gear. Quickly adjust your f/stop your speed and know your lens choice. Be ready.) But, what about other cultures?
I have lived in and among Muslims for over 15 years. For instance, I know that there are several “raka-ahs” in the namaz or several rounds or rotations of the prayer form. I know the hands come to the ears in Sunni prayers at the start and don’t in Shia prayers. I know that there is a long pause at several places in the raka-ah. I know that their head is coming to the floor and that all worshipers are going to stand shoulders to shoulder and that later they will touch the floor with their forehead. At one point at the end of the pray the participant will look to the left then the right and then the prayer will be over. “Ok, so what?”, you say. “So you know a little about Muslim namaz, who cares?” It matters because I know when to take the shot. I can anticipate the next move. All these serve to give me cues to what is happening next.
Even in the image above, I anticipated the shot. I knew the mosque, the weather and the direction of the sun. I even knew that in the cold the men in the mosque would find some sun light to sit in to pray to stay warm. So, after namaz, I waited in anticipation for this moment and it happened. I was ready.
Here is the difference not knowing the culture can make. I can’t tell you how many great shots in Buddhist temples I have missed by seconds, because I could not anticipate the next move. I don’t know the buddhist forms of worship and I miss the cues. This goes beyond just forms of worship, it applies to culture in general. I am not saying without detailed knowledge like this you cannot get a good image. No, you certainly can. But you are more likely to get that image if you are ready. We need to be students of the culture we are shooting in and even more so of the one we live in. All this to say, it serves the photographer well to understand the culture and the environment he or she is photographing in. The more understanding the better. Be ready for that decisive moment.