Behind the Lens: Camera tempts subjects to break the fourth wall

A third-grader acknowledges the camera with excitement during the recent Kansas Kids Fitness and Safety Day at Anschutz Pavillion.

A third-grader acknowledges the camera with excitement during the recent Kansas Kids Fitness and Safety Day at Anschutz Pavillion.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

In news-gathering situations, most photographers make a conscious effort not to allow their presence to influence the events around them.

But the fact is, the possibility of publicity has an effect on people and often causes them to act differently when they know the camera is around or, worse, pointed at them. It’s not uncommon to see some people run for the hills while others are happy to turn a cartwheel with the hopes that a photographer might shoot a picture.

Most documentarians would like to think they can sneak in and out of situations undetected, make a few story-telling images and then head out the door, but the reality is that people are much more aware than we often think. It’s the documentarian’s job to decide which subjects are truly engaged in whatever they are doing and who is acting or “hamming” for the camera.

When shooting for a news outlet, there’s really only two approaches you can take for your coverage. One is shooting documentary-style and letting events occur as they would if you weren’t even there. The other approach is portraiture. Often photographers shoot portraits when, for example, the widget maker has already prepared his widgets the evening before and there is no more widget-making to photograph. The end result is usually a dramatically-lit representation of the widget maker, widgets and all the grandeur associated with “widgetry.”

Both approaches have different effects on the phenomenon theater folks sometimes call the “fourth wall,” or the imaginary wall between the audience and the viewer that allows the viewer into the world of what is happening on stage. The underlying idea behind documentary work is maintaining that imaginary wall to allow whatever reality is being photographed to occur without influence to be witnessed and experienced by the viewer. Often times portraiture breaks the fourth wall because the purpose of a portrait is an invitation to look and understand.

Until a couple of weeks ago, the lines were pretty clear to me. But then I found out that nothing takes a sledgehammer to the fourth wall in a documentary situation like a third-grader with a Hula-Hoop who realizes he’s being photographed. Normally I can pretend not to notice such moments at the risk of being a meanie, but the kid made me laugh and blew my cover, so I shot a few.

I hemmed and hawed about this one for a bit before deciding not to submit it for publication on the basis that, although funny and loaded with personality, the camera-hamming was off the charts.

Maybe I’m having second thoughts about not running it initially, or at least wanting to make peace with the photo gods for not doing so. Either way, my hat is off to the rightful owners of this young man because your kid is hilarious.