Thursday, October 13, 2011

Where My Eyes Wander

Japanese Women in Traditional Dress, Shinichi Suzuki (1835-1919) 

 The Metropolitan Museum of Art  (

The experts say when traveling you should focus your camera lens on those fleeting instances that catch your eye before they disappear forever. You can always pick up a perfect image of that famous enduring monument or temple from off the post card rack at the airport souvenir shop. You'll never be able to share that burning image in your memory of the kimono clad maiden standing atop that floating barge with its glowing crimson lanterns as she peers into the night sky the instant it is illuminated with the radiance of a sparkling summer shower, unless you seize the moment and freeze it forever photographically. That's what my camera craves, those little slices of exotica that I can savor over and over again. The trouble is my eyes are bigger than my camera lens. 

While traveling the byways of the information superhighway I've stumbled upon more than a few blogs that capture the Japanese citizenry in a number of endearing poses. Often the photographic imagery looks like it has been ripped from the pages of Life magazine or some highbrow annals du photographie. Then there are those blogs that are full of grainy images of everyday folks. There is a snapshot of somebody's grandma sweeping the street, some lady holding on to the strap handle of a subway car as it carries her home from work, kids weighed down with enormous leather backpacks on the way to school, and more, all captured with the same artistry and sophistication found in your typical FBI surveillance photo. They are basically the kind of photos I take.

I want to take those Life-like photos but I just don't have the lens for it. Call it lens envy if you'd like but I need the kind of camera that will allow me to take close-up shots but still give me enough distance so that nobody knows what I'm up to (I hope that didn't sound too creepy). 

Still I don't think I have the eye of a real photographer and maybe I just don't have the stomach for secretly photographing unwitting subjects either. I have taken pictures of strangers before, festival workers, delivery people on bicycles, homeless guys collecting cans, etc. and a weird tingling sensation always creeps up my spine the minute I press the shutter button. I guess it's an automatic biological response triggered by that stare they usually give me that says something like "you have just violated my inner being."  

I wonder how I would feel if one day, while surfing the net, I happened upon a blog owned by some Japanese traveler in America and among the photos of Amish buggies, NYC cabbies, waitresses with beehive hairdos and lit cigs dangling from their lips, there was a picture of my octogenarian mother waiting for the bus in New Jersey's version of the kimono (polyester pants with an elastic waistband). I might be shocked, culture shocked that is(as in digital culture). 

That's unlikely to happen though since the rule of Internet and blog etiquette (and maybe privacy laws) in Japan is to block out or blur  facial features on photos that people post on their blog. While the little dots completely obscuring people's heads or blurred faces diminish the aesthetic value of the work, they do protect individual privacy, an issue that nobody in Japan treads on too lightly.

Even the pros in Japan tend to walk on egg shells when it comes to publishing photographic images of people and the places they inhabit. In response to a question on legal rights and wrongs regarding snapping pictures in public, Tokyo-based photojournalist, Tony McNicol writes on his website that for him "the rule tends to be 'shoot first, ask permission later." He notes that he only asks permission if the people he has just photographed notice him. The law in this regard seems a bit vague at best. McNicol says his understanding is that, "there are no restrictions on taking photos in public places in Japan. But if the picture is published and you have infringed someone’s right to privacy, they can sue you and have a good chance of winning."

Whether a photo constitutes an invasion of privacy depends a lot on how it is perceived. Like beauty, it's in the eye of the beholder. No matter where my eyes may wander at least I've got two things in my favor that are likely to keep me out of legal hot water. The first is a camera with a slow-as-molasses shutter speed that ensures every shot of a moving object (like a person) is always from the back. The second is an eye for photography that is forever out of focus. Put the two together and you get a good picture of a photograph ideally suited for the Japanese blogosphere where things are less than perfectly clear.

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