I was born into a family of sportsmen — bird hunters, fishermen and riflemen. Ten years before I was old enough to drive, my grandfather taught me how to prime, pack and crimp his shotgun shells. It would take even longer for me to learn that a perfectly executed fly cast was not a prerequisite to eating fish, and that trout was available at the local market. My family boasted several accomplished rifle champions, so get-togethers always involved a few spirited rounds of target practice.
Some sociologists insist we are shaped by heredity, while others opine that environment is what dictates our proclivities. There would be no such sociological arguments over me — I was, by both heredity and environment, destined to become a sportsman.
But destiny can be a trickster. From an early age, I despised hunting and its inevitable death. And my pronounced dislike for guns stood in vivid contrast to both my bloodline and upbringing. I was an anomaly; an aberration; a black sheep…
… or was I?
Henri Cartier-Bresson, the father of all ‘street’ photographers, considered Eugen Herrigel’s “Zen in the Art of Archery” an essential photographic text. Cartier-Bresson saw a distinct parallel between the mental conditioning and motor requirements of the archer, and those of the photographer.
And what should we make of common photographic jargon? Do we not ‘capture’ our subjects by ‘shooting’ them with our cameras? Sports photographers use motor drives so they can ‘spray’ their subjects with a ‘machine gun’ approach. And don’t many photographers, in an attempt to handhold long shutter speeds, ‘trigger’ their shutters while employing the same breathing techniques as riflemen?
Could it be that I didn’t actually escape my hereditary and environment? Have I simply replaced the gun — my ancestral tool of choice — with a camera? It’s a plausible postulation save for one fact — I don’t kill anything when I take its photo. In fact, I would be incapable of ever killing anything. Though it’s convenient to equate my passion and skill with a camera to my familial relationship with firearms, I am still obviously void of the hunting gene…
… or am I?
Many photographers capture landscapes, architecture, still-life, and abstracts. Even people, when photographed, are often posed for the benefit of the photographer. These subjects are, in many ways, analogous to the paper targets used by marksmen — static, stationary objects at which the photographer aims his camera and shoots.
But what of wildlife photographers? Are they not true sportsmen? Are they not hunters? The only difference between, say, an elk hunter and an elk photographer is the trophy on the wall — the hunter mounts its head, and the photographer mounts its photo.
So if photographing animals in the wild is akin to hunting, then what of my personal passion — street photography?
In 1924, Richard Connell wrote The Hounds of Zaroff, better known as “The Most Dangerous Game.” It told the story of General Zaroff, who had become so bored with hunting traditional prey that he turned to hunting the most cunning and clever prey of all—man.
Since early adulthood, when it became obvious I would never grow into the role of “sportsman,” I assumed I had somehow escaped my destiny. Though true, the fact remains that my destiny didn’t escape me. Rather, it simply mutated. I have come to realize that I am, indeed, a sportsman. My ‘prey’ is man, my ‘weapon’ is a camera, and my ‘trophy’ is their image on my wall.
For a photographer, man is truly the most dangerous game. Man, and only man, is aware of photography and, as such, he is the only subject who will alter his behavior in front of a camera. To capture man in his environment — unguarded and natural — requires patience, technique, practice, bravery, compassion and a healthy dose of respect for the subject. There is no subject so expressive, wondrous, curious, delightful, beautiful and entertaining as our fellow homo sapiens.
Destiny may not have escaped me, but I have transformed it. Hunting permeates my bloodline and upbringing, but hunting does not necessitate a gun. The final act of a successful hunt does not require death. Instead, by hunting with a camera, I have my choice of many different photographic outcomes — sympathy, longing, understanding, humor, knowledge and even love.
It is only now, in retrospect, that I see my passion for street photography for what it truly is — the only conceivable consequence of my lineage, and the natural progression of a passionate hunter, born and reared.
©2010 grEGORy simpson
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