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Discussion: Raul Gutierrez

Here’s the first installment of Discussions. We’re kicking it off with Raul Gutierrez of Mexican Pictures. 2point8 in bold, Raul in plain text.

I like what you said about how it doesn’t matter if the street is on the other side of the world, but it makes me wonder about how street photography challenges what we know and what we don’t know. When you travel, does it help or hurt to be the outsider? Meaning, if you know your own backyard, by extension, do you know a bit about all backyards?

Unless I am photographing my own family or close friends I always feel like an outsider, perhaps because I am a product of several cultures, none of which I fit into neatly, or perhaps simply because I am a shy person. Travel can accentuate the feeling of being an outsider especially if I am ethnically distinct from the people I am amongst, or if I find myself in an environment that is foreign. But not always. I feel much more uncomfortable in a “normal” middle American home that I ever do in the third world.

Whether I have a camera or not I am always making photographs in my head. I do this when I walk out the door to the corner store and I do it when I am on the other side of the world. I see no difference. Sometimes the actual photograph infringes on the memory because of some technical or artistic limitation prevented me from capturing what I saw, but in my head the images are perfect.

We all have certain environments that excite us on a visceral level that allow us to do better work so that we can forget the technical and just make the pictures we already see.

I don’t know why I’m drawn to certain faraway spots on the map, but I’ve felt the pull most of my life. In a way, I feel taking pictures in those places is cheating because it feels easy. I much more admire people like Eliot and Mark who discover the surreal outside their front doors.

Can you talk a bit about how curiosity works–how it enables you to get deeper into the moment and closer to your subject?

Photography for me = emotion. So when I am looking for something to photograph it is my curiosity about the little mysteries I encounter that propels me to try to find a way to tell that story in a single image. This is one of the reasons I use wide lenses even when shooting people. When you shoot a portrait with a long lens you can sneak a shot of the subject from across the street. With a short lens that is impossible. You have to be physically close. Holding up a camera invites a reaction, possibly a confrontation. I find those moments of inflection hold small truths that suggest a more complex narrative.

There is a maxim in screenwriting: “get in late, get out early.” What it is saying is: get to the meat of the thing, go for the solar-plexus, but leave some unanswered questions. In photography you just have that one moment to tell the tale. The images that compel me most not only tell a story of a particular moment but suggest an entire world.

When I was in Asia, I thought about something you’d written; a tip to take photographs when you’re ready to leave, after hanging out for awhile, which says something about cultivating a particular kind of experience from which good photographs can emerge, rather than going in and trampling all over everything, uncaringly. I get the impression that when you travel you’re making as many friends as you make photos.

In the third world, the sight of a foreigner will often cause a stir. In these situations I leave my camera in the bag for quite a while because showing up camera ablaze and causing a ruckus leads to a certain kind of picture. Many will smile and pose. Some will frown and turn away. Some will ignore you. But I find in these moments people wear masks for an outsider. I prefer to hang out for a while, camera holstered. In most places this means drinking tea, sitting on a street corner, sharing dinner, or studying the items in the market. Some people will befriend you, some will forget you’re around, some will always be hostile. The masks, if not gone, are at least lowered, and the photographs I get are truer portraits of the people I encounter.

Where does street photography stop for you, or is it all wound-up in the same aesthetic? The horse festival, the photo studios - even though they may not be “on the street” per se, they have that street feel; something’s being discovered, you’re there in the midst of it, and you’re following something intuitive that leads to an unknown destination.

I would consider most of the photography on my site street photography as my definition of street photography is uncomplicated: ie “man with camera walks around with no particular destination and photographs what he finds”. Some have called my stuff documentary photography but my definition of documentary photography is that it must be undertaken with the goal of covering specific subject to reveal some truth. Travel photography I define as touristic. If it should be on a postcard, it’s travel photography. Some would say that travel photography, at it’s best, is the record of a journey or a place, but I can’t separate the term from the popular cliches of the genre.

Do you think a camera is a kind of license, and if so, what does it give you license to do?

I wish having a camera in hand gave me license to photograph all I encounter, but I try to be respectful and put the camera down when asked. Also there are cultural sensitivities to be dealt with. In Muslim countries I don’t photograph women for example. This said, I normally photograph first and ask later as the very act of asking generally breaks the moment. But as I noted I tend to hang out a bit before snapping a shot, so the number of people who have asked me not to shoot is surprisingly small.

In our culture, photography and images are cheap. They are everywhere. And yet oddly, many people in the West chafe at being photographed. In places with many tourists, people also chafe at being photographed because they feel exploited. Then there are places where images are rare, and personal photographs more precious still. In that third category of place, cameras have a special power, and people are unafraid to look into a lens. Still, I try to not just be someone who is just taking away images. I always travel with a polaroid and as much SX-70 film as I can carry. I snap polaroids and give them to my subjects as parting gifts. (an example) The only problem with this approach is that word travels lightning fast and soon everyone wants one. So my technique is to snap the polaroid, and while the crowd gathers to look at it, I quietly slip away.

As a sidenote, I was walking home tonight and saw the most amazing scene through a large basement window covered with a somewhat translucent curtain. A father was standing with a woman’s bathrobe over his shoulders staring at a television. At his feet two toddlers wrestling. The mom sat nude on the couch in all her chubby glory. It was surreal and beautiful and I could have easily snapped a picture; I wanted to take one, but I didn’t because I didn’t feel I had license.

Images:

This one is personal, not of the street. It was one of those images that just comes together in a flash. I was with my wife and baby at a wedding on a ranch in West Texas. The ceremony was finished and we were waiting for an old school bus to take us back to the ranch house for the reception. My baby wanted to breast feed and there was no waiting… so my wife walked with him into the woods and knelt down. Just then the clouds parted bathing the place in spectacular yellow light. I snapped one picture, the last on the roll. My wife hates the image by the way.

This is an illustration of my “hanging out” method. I had been playing ball with these kids for much of the day. When a fellow traveler came along (a friend from the road) they completely forgot about me and rushed him.

This is another perhaps more typical example of the technique:

This is a picture of a father and a son, both horsemen. The father had been negotiating the sale of a horse for an hour or so and I had been observing and joking around with the buyers. When the son showed up, the father brought him over to meet me. The boy was a bit sheepish and grabbed his dad with a big hug. I quickly snapped this picture. They didn’t flinch. I don’t think I could have taken this image an hour before because I wouldn’t have had the trust of the father.

I’d like to thank Raul for his time and generosity. There’ll be more discussions/interviews like this, soon.

Tag: Discussion