Motojournalism: Carversville (Or, “The Ethics of GoPro”)


The end of summer cruelly brings some of the best riding weather with the fewest remaining number of opportunities. It's a time of year when you don't say "no" to the opportunity for a ride. Which is how I found myself rolling on Pennsylvania blacktop with Ramesh, Kenric, and Leon, winding our way north(ish) to Carversville.

Home to a teeming mass of 100 residents, Carversville is about as quaint a spot as it gets. Our destination (out of the possibilities of two) was the Max Hansen Carversville Grocery. As misnomer's go, Max Hansen's is a big one. It's not just a grocery, but also a post office, news stand, art gallery, tobacconist, bakery, and gathering place. 

The route from Quaker City Motor Works to Carversville took us along fantastic, winding two-lane blacktop. Little traffic and sharp turns made for a brisk ride. With Kenric leading, it was easy just to enjoy the roads with the blur of state highway signs occupying little attention.

Documenting rides like these is a physical challenge—literally. Riding a motorbike requires both feet and both hands, which leaves no appendage to hold a camera. This leaves only two unpalatable options:

  1. Get off the motorbike and take pictures while others ride past. 
  2. Use a camera mounted to the motorbike.

If the goal is to document real moments (and it should be), the first option is unsatisfactory. Contriving shots along a picturesque piece of highway while your friends repeat a few loops may capture some flavor of the experience of the place, but won't capture anything that actually happened. This is not a worthy goal.

The second option is better, but it presents an ethical dilemma. Creativity takes place over an arc: from the Duchampian idea to discernable expression. The further away from the process of the creation of that image, however, the less the artist's role. 

For example, the idea to capture an image of a bear starts the creative process. If a photographer puts a camera on a timer in the woods, the resulting image is an expression of the idea, but nature is arguably the artist. The photographer may develop the image, but that's the same creative act as a retoucher, which is different from the photographer laying claim to the creativity of choosing the moment behind a 600mm lens while being present in the woods. 

This the GoPro problem. Attaching a camera to a motorbike and letting it make a series of images over time is about as far away from the creative process as a photographer can get. There is no ability to frame the image, to make adjustments to capture attention and motion, and the timing of the moment is anything but decisive. Using a camera that way may still technically be photography, but its "creativity" is highly attenuated. 

Faced with the realities of dangerous bears or motorbikes in motion, however, we are stuck with mitigation as the only solution. Clawing back as much creative input as we can, within the limitations of the situation, is the best effort we can make. And so, here are three tips for keeping GoPro images on the better side of the creative dilemma:

  1. Mount the camera in a fixed location. It's impossible to check the field of view of the camera while you're in motion. The next best thing is to know what that field of view is and to keep it static. Mounting the camera in a single spot will let you orient yourself to its view through either the LCD screen or through the GoPro iPhone app before you start the ride. Knowing the camera's field of view will enable you to point the camera (or the bike!) with some degree of intention when you want to use it. Think of it like a high-tech pinhole camera.
  2. No time-lapse exposures. The GoPro has many different modes. Most of them are automated to capture images over time, unattended. Stay away from these. Instead, choose the single photo mode which requires you to push the top button to make an exposure.
  3. Don't let the GoPro relieve you from the creative burden of making images. Tools like the GoPro can give a photographer the option to capture images which would otherwise be difficult or impossible to make. But such a device should be one of many tools. Take along your normal gear and use it whenever possible. A photo story should not be comprised solely of images from a GoPro. A larger creative expression diminishes the detriment of the the loss of control from automated devices, helping the artist reassert his or her creative vision and input over the whole. 

And if you apply these tips on a ride out to Carversville, I highly recommend the Smoked Beef Brisket.