It's addictive: that split-second release of the shutter button and instinctive 'yes!' moment when you've just captured an exceptional image (of the documentary ilk). That 'addiction' has for me something also to do with a sense that in that fraction of a second, time has inexplicably slowed just for you. New York street photographer, Joel Meyerowitz knows a bit of what I mean:
Every camera has a clock on it, it says a second and it says a thousandth of a second and you can choose to work within those time constraints. And if you know what a thousandth of a second is, you can believe that you see things in that split second. And if you believe it, you'll begin to see it.
I actually crave that feeling every now and then. It's a driver, for sure, but it's not the only one that gets me out onto the streets, farms, markets, carnivals and beaches. Another has something to do with time, or more precisely, change over time. This is where photography has an acute ability to document change, and thereby bring the past into the present—or at least a real or perceived emotional attachment with the past.
I recently ventured past a familiar place that had radically changed and—in contrast to the buzz described above—I felt immediately deflated. The second image was taken before the dwelling was sold or let to new tenants, and when I saw it I was as gutted as its verandah! Maybe I'm a romantic at heart, but now I somehow want to know more of the people who decorated their verandah with cactuses, kerosene lanterns, hanging terracotta planters, and indigenous American and Australian paraphernalia. But it's not a sense of loss of their 'things' that I feel so much as a loss of their presence as evidenced by their things.
And there's the loss of opportunity. I'll no longer be able to catch them sitting in their worn purple armchairs flicking spent cigarettes into an empty cheap instant coffee tin while watching Adelaide weekenders pass along the main road between Victor Harbor and Goolwa. There's no more chance of stopping and striking up a conversation. No chance of getting to know them.
Why did I record the first image? Because it had character in spades. Why did I record the second image? Because for me, documentary photography is something of a 'time machine', like a little portal through which we can pass between present and past. Of course we can make of the past what we want, especially one we've not lived. Nonetheless, documentary images lend a sense of connection with the past. I never made a connection with the occupants of this old maisonette, but most oddly now, I wish I had.