Society & Culture

What are we really capturing with our camera lens?



Is taking photos an act of violence?

And if so, is curiosity then a form of violence, a wanting to see, to know, to capture? And for what? Posterity?

I know when I die it won’t matter how many photos I’ve taken; it might not matter much to the world either. At most, they might be of some cultural significance or historical value (though these days there is a sea of tomorrow’s historical records proliferating online).

But I wonder if there is there a cost to all this. It’s well-documented that certain tribal cultures believe a photo taken of a person is the stealing of his or her soul. If this is true, we are a world of walking zombies, and from how we tend to imagine zombies, they are a violent breed indeed.

I know that my intentions have never been violent. I’ve always loved looking at the world through a camera lens. When I was only 12, for example, I would shoot leaves from a bird’s eye view and make ‘abstract art.’

It was only when I started shooting people — catching them unaware — and only after a long, long time of doing this, that I start thinking about the nature and consequences of my actions.

Of course, one could make a case about this being an invasion of privacy. Also, just as surely, this is a form of violence, if we define violence as an act of ill will, malice or harm toward another being, or as a violation of or intrusion upon someone’s sacred space. I have no excuse: I couldn’t keep myself from taking these photos, the subjects of which I genuinely found arrestingly beautiful because that’s what people are to me: arresting and beautiful, without exception.

All the secrets of the universe, which are also without fail mysterious and beguiling to me, lie in the bodies and souls of the world’s creatures. As above, so below. Of this I am sure. But this inability to put others’ possible preferences — to not be photographed or to be able to give or withhold their consent — ahead of my own amounts to selfishness, at the very least; and at the most, violence.

When I was travelling in India, my karma came back to me faster than I could say “cheese!”, and frequently. Just as I was becoming more conscientious about whom and what I was photographing, I found myself in the hot seat, being photographed every step of the way.

Babies were plopped unceremoniously — yet with flourish — onto my lap. Children were forced into my arms, whether they wanted to be or not. Men pushed themselves onto me and flung their arms around me for the sake of a snap, or five, usually taken with cellphone cameras. Also, I apparently ‘consented’ because I didn’t (normally) run away.

It was at turns amusing, surprising, aggressive, bemusing, annoying and comical. Sometimes it happened a few times a day, and I grew used to it. But once, while my husband and I were arguing, not far from a bustling bridge in Rishikesh, a man came up to us and uncharacteristically, didn’t ask for a photo. Instead, he just came up to me, pointed his large camera in my face and started shooting. I said, “Not now, please, it’s really not a good time,” trying to be polite despite my mood. He completely ignored me — though I was the object of his photo! — and kept taking pictures.

This felt like an extremely violent intrusion into my life, and it struck me immediately that I have very possibly done the same to others. I haven’t been as aggressive, maybe, but haven’t I sneaked photos of someone at the distance even after they shooed other cameras away? Haven’t I instinctively felt sometimes that I shouldn’t be shooting, but did anyway?

Love and respect for our fellow Earth-citizens isn’t just a theoretical game. It’s what we do and how we interact with each other, all the time. Compassion is not a hobby, and it’s up to us to figure out the boundaries of what is art, what is creativity; why it is we feel the need to obsessively collect images and expose ourselves to the world; what is sharing, and what is respect for the sanctity of others.


{Photo: Alexander Andrews / StockSnap}

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Tammy T. Stone

Tammy T. Stone

Tammy T. Stone is a Canadian writer, photographer and chronicler of life as it passes through us. A wanderer at heart, she’s mesmerised by people, places and all of our wildest dreams; the world is somehow so vast and so small. She feels incredibly lucky to have been able to work, learn and live abroad, writing, photographing and wellness-practicing along the way. She invites you to see her photography here and to connect with her on her Facebook writer’s page, Twitter and her blog, There’s No War in World. Her first book, Formation: Along the Ganges and Back Again, published by Prolific Press, is available on Amazon.

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