Wield a camera on the streets of a city like Prague (can there be any other city like Prague?) with its fairy-tale Disney skylines, hillsides of red-tiled rooftops, towering Gothic spires, ancient cobblestone streets, and bustling pedestrian bridge crossings . . . invariably you come home with treasures, both intentional and accidental.
Carriage Rides in Old Town, Church of Our Lady Before Tyn, Prague
Careful as you go. Stalking with a long lens - or shooting point-blank into a crowd - capturing unguarded moments and expressions on faces of people you don’t know, it’s easy to cross the line. Professionals know: there’s a difference between taking a picture and stealing one.
Outside Spinoza Cafe, Budapest
Taking a picture implies permission. A purpose. A pose. A smile. A mutual give-and-take. Stealing a shot? That’s another story. Pointing. (Didn’t your mother teach you that it’s rude to point?) Surreptitiously focusing. Waiting for the moment, or capturing it. Taking a picture in a crowd can be bold, aggressive. Even reckless.
As a woman – uh, of a certain age - carrying a camera of a certain brand, I generally encounter little resistance to my antics on the street. People sometimes stop and even indulge me with a wave of tacit approval. Even mothers allow me into their space, upon my polite request to photograph their children, sometimes handing me their own cameras to snap their pictures as well. Folks are generally open with me, unsuspicious of my motives. As they should be. I mean no harm. My photos are taken in innocence. My motives are simply to observe and enjoy the particular beauty of people, randomly assembled on the street. In a cafe. In a museum. On a tram. Hell, I’m just another tourist, wielding a fine camera. Generally, it’s a good time. Taking the Canon out for a spin on the road is one of the purist joys of traveling.
In Old Town Square, Prague
If all this sounds like a rationalization for an ugly American behaving like a tourist, I admit the hypocrisy in the act of stealing pictures on the street. I’m not a pro, have never been trained as a journalist, but I fully realize there’s a code of ethics – one to which I pay little heed, insofar as I post “my” photos on this site. In this day and age of instant media access and publishing via the internet, I know the camera can be an instrument of aggression, an invasion of privacy.
That’s my husband’s practical advice in the matter. Though shooting anonymously may solve the logistics of acquiring candid portraits in public, it doesn’t address the moral issue. What exactly is my “right” to just take any photo as I see it? What are the boundaries of my “freedom of expression?”
In an afternoon in Budapest I tested the limits, not once, but three times. Heading for the museums across the Danube, my husband and I jumped on the tram. Standing near the front door of the train, sporting a bright orange rain jacket, sunglasses, watch, shoes, and camera with a shoulder strap emblazoned with the CANON logo, virtually everything on my person screamed : American tourist. What was I thinking, taking the lens cap off that camera? As I started looking through the view finder, at nothing in particular, still looking for a shot, a man in his late thirties, jolts up out of his seat, clearly agitated. Face-to-face with me now, he’s angry with me, berating me, “Would you point that camera away, can’t you understand, I don’t want to be in your shot.” I apologize – I’m terribly awfully sorry I say (sounding strangely British in the fluster of the moment). I turn away and, keep my eyes down and my mouth shut, as I stare blankly out the window for the remainder of the ride. I reason: I probably had it coming. It was I who was insensitive, flaunting a camera, oblivious to the culture and history of a country once under communist rule. No photos, please.
And do I learn my lesson? Well, no. Not exactly. Later that afternoon, we stop in a café for a beer. The light is lovely – there’s a young woman seated at the next table, smoking a cigarette. I am irrepressible – I want her picture. So I snap. Quick. She doesn’t notice. I turn my head, and see that three women at the table on my right have been watching me. One of them has taken out her cell phone to steal my picture. They laugh. The joke is now on me. No harm, no foul there. But all the same. We’ve all crossed the line and we know it.
Last incident of the day before I finally put the camera away. We are sauntering through a crowd that’s gathered for “Museum Night” just outside the Habsburg Gate in the Castle District. It’s a festival. There are food and souvenir stands all about. And street performers. I pass a violinist. He’s joshing in good nature with a tourist, urging her to play his violin and mugging in front of her husband’s camera. I slow my step as I pass them and snap their picture. My husband has instinctively quickened his pace to bypass this nonsense, not wanting to engage. Too late for me. The violinist turns to stop me. He now wants my camera to snap my picture. I attempt to decline. Politely. In my handbag is not one single Hungarian coin or bill to drop into his violin case. Not one. It doesn’t occur to me to hand him US currency. I need to extricate myself; I begin to walk away. And suddenly his performance turns to fury – I dare not turn, but it’s clear I’ve insulted yet another Hungarian as I hear his words burning in English—YOU AMERICANS, you are terrible tourists, you don’t understand I’m out here working.”
Three strikes in one afternoon. But all things told, I took 1000 pictures home. Some were well earned. Taken in good stride. Others stolen. Is the proof in the picture? Tell me, what do you think?
Mugging for camera, Prague
Strangers on a pedestrian bridge, near Parliament, Budapest
Photos: V. Henoch
Thanks for traveling by