Photographs Not Taken: Photographers Talk About the Images They Never Made


posted Friday, April 13, 2012 at 2:07 PM EDT

The recently published “Photographs Not Taken: A Collection of Photographers' Essays” (Daylight, 2012) is a remarkable collection of words about photography that contains not a single photograph. In their own words, the sixty photographers who contributed the essays in this book tell the stories of the images they never took. The overall effect is powerful and thought provoking although these are mostly about the small moments when a camera was set aside.
None of these essays is some hoary fish tale about the “one that got away,” the photo that did not happen because the light changed or the people moved out of position. These are rather, reflective meditations on the role of the photographer. In particular, the relationship and responsibility towards the people and situations one is photographing.

Exploring these moments, the essays tell how the decision not to make a photograph occurred.
Sometimes the situations seem mundane on their face. For example, one day photographer Joni Sternbach took her large format camera to a California beach to photograph. She came upon a father and his young son practicing advanced yoga positions. When she asked, the father agreed to be photographed, but the child said no and left the two of them.

The images of the two bodies in beautiful synchronization she had envisioned never happened. However, a few minutes later the child returned and gave her a Polaroid self-portrait he had just made of himself. Sternbach cherishes that photo and the memory of this strange encounter of a photo not taken.
There are also essays of the horrific moments when even the most hardened photojournalist chooses not to shoot. Take photographer Juliana Beasley who was photographing for a book on alcoholism, when an alcoholic she had been working with for some time, collapses in front of her in a deep, dead drunk.
Here in her essay, in her own words, Beasley describes what happened next.

“Drool covers his chin. I put my camera down, rush to his side.

Are you all right, John? I’m right here with you…you’ll be O.K. Don’t worry, John.
I turn John’s head to the side. He won’t choke on his saliva this way. I make sure that his mouth remains agape so that he won’t bite his tongue in two.
This is the shot! This is the action shot. This is the shot that explains in one photograph the level of self-destruction I have been witnessing for the last several weeks. This is the shot that will make my book complete.
Again, the voice in my head, 'Take the picture! Leave his side and pick up your camera!' I don’t. I can’t. The voice that has always had its way…goes away.”

(Listen to interviews with some of the photographers in this book at the audio links below.)
Conceived and edited by Will Steacy, the sixty essays make for a fascinating and disturbing read. In the range of voices, these photographers, present common threads that should shape a set of photographic ethics for all of us. The process by which these photographers reached their decisions not to photograph, challenges us to think about how we might face these moments.
After reading these essays I am reminded of my own invisible gallery of photographs not taken and of the voices in my head that scream at me as well, “Take the shot. Take the shot.”

Book Details
 “Photographs Not Taken: A Collection of Photographers' Essays”
Edited by Will Steacy
Introduction by Lyle Rexer
Paperback, 232 pages
Daylight, 2012
You can purchase the book directly from the publisher or use our Amazon link to help out Imaging Resource.

Amy Elkins:Eirik Johnson:Lisa Kereszi:Joni Sternbach: