Other Voices, Other Rooms, was published when Truman Capote was but 23 years old. It put him on the literary map in a big way. Seventeen years later came In Cold Blood. That book brought Capote more accolades, as well as fame and wealth. His place as a media darling was set, and he was surrounded by friends who adored him.
His friends, apparently, weren’t really readers. Had they been, they would have observed that Capote drew his writing from his life. Like most of the greatest writers, Capote wrote about what he experienced, and often experienced things in order to write about them.
But in a November 1975 piece in Esquire titled “La Côte Basque 1965,” Capote’s friends found out what he liked to write about. And they were none too happy.
La Côte Basque 1965 was the first installment of Capote’s latest novel—which was an expose on Manhattan’s elite. Filled with tales of adultery and even murder, Capote’s subjects were hardly veiled. The reaction was obvious to all but Capote: he was shunned by them all.
I often think of Capote when I see a good photographer who has poor images of those who are closest. It’s quite common: examining the Flickr feed or Instagram of someone whose eye I admire—great composition, great timing, great subject matter, a real story being built—and then boom! A family photo. A child or a spouse. And it looks like it was pulled from the saddest of photo albums from decades past. Depressed shoulders dropped to heavy, straight arms. A grimace or reluctant smile. Often standing before a landmark. Often on a holiday. Almost always in color. And always in opposition to the photographer’s other work.
There are many reasons why we find it difficult to objectively see those around us, but
one of those reasons is what I like to call the “Capote Effect.” Whether it captures the actual soul or not, photography is powerful. However much a person may accept and understand that all images are unnatural, frozen moments out of time, there’s a metric ton of self-evaluation and self-judgment that comes with viewing an image of oneself. Being the person who starts that train of thought is not always a happy experience. And when the subject of that experience is someone you interact with every day—well, maybe it’s best just to stick with posing, because who needs that kind of heat?!
The problem, though, is that photographers—like writers—need subjects. If we choose not to photograph those closest to us, or to photograph them only with an approach we think is “safe,” then we are removing a massive number of opportunities. Luckily, there is a way to have it all.
The solution is in the self, and not the subject. Restraint in action comes not from a lack of understanding why I want to do something, but because that purpose hasn't been articulated to the subject, and we fear the subject’s reaction. Truman Capote was well aware what he wanted to do, but knew it wouldn’t be received well. So to those around him he simply dropped clues and hints in an attempt to generate excitement. He got excitement alright—but he failed to achieve the understanding of those closest to him.
DaVinci identified vision as the "king of the senses." Sight provides us with powerful information upon which to act. Photographers are engaged in that process in such a deep way that it's easy to forget—as Capote did—that the recording of our vision is for an audience. And that audience will each have their own individual reactions to what it is they see.
While we never have control over the spectator's reaction, we can take a lesson from Capote and head off much of any potential negative reaction with a simple, two-step approach:
- Communicating with those around us. Sharing our vision, explaining our process, showing our work—letting others inside our thoughts and not just leaving them to confront the final image—can go a long way to avoiding a bad outcome. When those closest to you have heard you talk about your work in a general way, and about images you’ve made, they'll apply that understanding to the images they see of themselves.
- Maintaining objective empathy. We better serve our art, as well as our relationships, by not playing favorites. The motivation and reason to make an image shouldn't be dependent upon the subject. It should come from what inspires you as an artist. If you wouldn’t take a picture of someone in a funny hat on the street, there’s no reason to do so at a birthday party. Likewise, if you see a moment you’d shoot no matter who the subject was, then the image should be made.
It’s when we stray from our purpose that the problems start to creep in, and it shows in our work. The images a photographer makes are an insight into the artist, and the danger of photographing something that doesn’t fit one’s artistic vision is that the result will be contrived and fraudulent. That’s far worse than not taking a picture at all.
So learn the lessons of Truman Capote: share the philosophy of your approach and vision with those closest to you, and treat them with the empathy and respect you would any other subject of interest. The rules hold true even if the subject is your kids at an eye exam. If the event is something that fits your artistic approach, then your relationship to the subject won't be relevant or a concern—so long as you follow the rules!