The Unaware, Some Strategies

Red Buggy - Steve Middlehurst 2014

Red Buggy – Steve Middlehurst 2014

In Camera Lucida (1) Roland Barthes discusses his reaction to being photographed. He describes how once he feels himself “observed by the lens, everything changes. I constitute myself in the process of posing, I transform myself into an image”. Some photographers are unwilling to relinquish their total control of the picture; whilst many others believe they must be invisible and the subject unaware of the camera’s presence if they are to capture their essence.

Photographers have devised a variety of strategies to prevent the subject gaining this control, hoping that catching them completely unaware would somehow reveal their inner being. To research this topic I have looked at a number of photographers who interest me and taken a look back at some of my own street photography that uses similar techniques.

The Blind Subject

Blind Woman - Paul Strand 1916

Blind Woman – Paul Strand 1916

According to Geoff Dyer (2) Walker Evans visited the New York Public Library in 1924 to peruse back issues of Alfred Stielglitz’s Camera Works. Recalling that visit decades later Evans identifies Paul Strand’s Blind Women 1916 as “the thing to do”, the solution to becoming an invisible photographer.

This is the ultimate candid photograph, the subject is presumed to be wholly unaware of the photographer, her expression is interpreted as unguarded, unposed and natural and as such the photographer can claim sole authorship.

For Strand this picture represented the prefect relationship with his subject allowing him to achieve “a quality of being” (2) that was otherwise impossible, and by representing their true self, Strand believed he was being faithful to his subject.

Blind Children - August Sander c. 1930

Blind Children – August Sander c. 1930

Not all photographers were seeking to investigate their subjects’ inner being, in fact August Sander, as previously discussed (here) saw his subjects as examples of a type rather than as individuals. His 1930 photograph of blind children are part of his People of the Twentieth Century series.

However, whatever his motives he reveals no more, nor any less, about his subjects than Strand. The two girls are presumably aware of the photographer’s presence and as such are posing but their lack of sight makes Roland Barthes’ idea that the subject transforms themselves into the final image ambiguous.

These two pictures question when photography becomes exploitative and commits what Abigail Solomon-Godeau(6) calls a “double act of subjugation” by exploiting people who are already suppressed by society? One the one hand it could be argued that Strand’s picture, by being candid, is a stolen moment that exploits a marginal member of society in his artistic pursuit of revealing his subject’s inner being; in his defence he argued that “it is one thing to photograph people. It is another to make others care about them by revealing the core of their humanness” (7)

Sander, on the other hand, is openly photographing two blind girls as part of a serious documentary, arguably an academic study, but, if he truly saw them as types rather than individuals we can argue that the process of using them as a stereotype is exploitative. The question of when photography becomes exploitative cannot be answered here but the very fact that it was photographs of blind people rather than strangers on the subway or street photography that led me to ask the question suggests that I might see these subjects blindness before I see their individuality which is in itself a prejudiced reaction.

The Underground or Subway

Subway Portrait - Walker Evans 1938 - 1941

Subway Portrait – Walker Evans 1938 – 1941

The idea of photographing blind people was all very well but had limited application so Evans had to seek out other ways to capture “a quality of being”.

Between 1938 and 1941 he regularly rode the New York subway with his camera nearly completely hidden beneath his coat taking photographs of whomsoever sat opposite him without being able to compose the shot.

This approach achieves the objective of an invisible camera but adds a new layer of complexity by often capturing his fellow passengers staring at him, analysing his identity, whilst Evans’ camera analyses theirs.

This was not Evan’s only strategy to don what Dorothea Lange called the “cloak of invisibility” (2); mixed in with the eye contact portraits in American Photographs (3) and in his extensive archive at the J. Paul Getty Museum (4) there are many examples of reasonably close-up candid shots and quite a selection of rear views of people.

#22 from the series Tokyo Compression - Michael Wolfe

#22 from the series Tokyo Compression – Michael Wolfe

A number of other photographers have taken advantage of the captive subjects and consistent lighting that underground travel offers although their objectives vary from Evans. Michael Wolfe has spent fifteen years photographing the sardine tin conditions of the Tokyo subway system.

His series Tokyo Compression (5) emphasises the cramped conditions where commuters are pressed tightly against each other and the windows of the trains. His photographs taken from the “other side” of the glass are eerie, a set of surreal portraits of people, often dozing, whilst under extreme inconvenience and stress.

Wolfe is not the only photographer to venture into, what seems to Westerners, the alien world of the Japanese underground system; anyone who travels during the rush hour in Tokyo learns to never again complain about the City Line. In 1998 Martin Parr photographed a series of commuters sitting opposite him whilst riding the subway in Tokyo. Like commuters the world over the Japanese “salary man” catches a few extra moments of sleep during his or her journey so Parr photographed their bowed heads to create a decidedly odd series focusing on people’s partings.

Reflections and Mirrors

Paris Subway - Ferdinando Scianna 2002

Paris Subway – Ferdinando Scianna 2002

Ferdinando Scianna offers a helpful bridge from subways to reflections. A study of Scianna’s portfolio at Magnum (8) suggests that he frequently uses reflections as an aesthetic device rather than as a way to catch his subjects unaware but the net result is the same regardless of his intent.

Buenos Aires: During a Political Meeting - Ferdinando Scianna 2002

Buenos Aires: During a Political Meeting – Ferdinando Scianna 2002

The use of shop windows or mirrors as reflective surfaces introduces layers of complexity to an image and, as in the case of Scianna’s Buenos Aires: During a Political Meeting can create a surreal world in which reflections merge with reality.

He asks the viewer to pause long enough to begin to unravel the reflections from the objects inside the shop. In this instance only the title directs us to his subject.

Untitled - Hannah Starkey 1997

Untitled – Hannah Starkey 1997

I first came across Hannah Starkey when researching staged photography for assignment five of Context and Narrative and was reminded of her work when reading The World Atlas of Street Photography (9) as part of my current research. Her pictures are often based on a street photography aesthetic and she regularly uses mirrors, reflections and refractions to add depth and complexity to her compositions. However, each photograph has been carefully staged using models but her scenes, like Jeff Walls’, are often based on her own everyday experiences when out walking an in the context of photographing the unaware subject her use of mirrors is a useful reference point.

Umbrella in Pescara - Steve Middlehurst 2014

Umbrella in Pescara – Steve Middlehurst 2014

I used this approach in assignment three of TAoP (here) but was focussing on mannequins rather than reflective portraits. I am considering whether to return to this idea for a series of unaware street portraits.

Hidden Cameras, Sometimes Hidden in Plain View

Hans Eijkelboom

Hans Eijkelboom

As previously mentioned Walker Evans went to great length to conceal his camera when photographing subjects on the subway and Paul Strand added a false lens to the side of his to mislead his unsuspecting subjects.

Hans Eijkelboom whose series People of the 21st Century (10) I reviewed recently (here) has taken the approach of making a backplate for his camera that allows him to keep it at chest height and stable whilst he captures candid photographs using a hidden cable release.

As I said in my earlier review I am ambivalent about this series, I find the huge number of images across five hundred pages overwhelming in a way that steals his subjects identities and converts them, not just into types, but into types who have conformed to dress codes to such a degree that their individual identities are subsumed by fashion and cultural trends.

Street Scene from waist Level, Antigua - Steve Middlehurst 2014

Street Scene from waist Level, Antigua – Steve Middlehurst 2014

Technology is constantly moving and the current crop of small mirror-less but high quality cameras have adjustable LCD screens which allow them to be easily used from waist height, this is a tremendous step forward for street photography. I find that people don’t notice a camera if it is not raised to the eye. Another approach with the camera in full view is to use a wide angled lens and to take un-composed shots. I am very tall and not so supple as I was twenty years ago so I often take photos from waist height to create a more interesting composition, we aren’t used to looking at the street from this height and it confers dignity and status to most subjects.


Andalusia. Almeria - Ferdinando Scianna 1992

Andalusia. Almeria – Ferdinando Scianna 1992

I am drawn back to Ferdinando Scianna (i). We spend half our life asleep but are rarely photographed as such and it appears to be an uncommon theme amongst documentary photographers although Martin Parr did produced a series of sleeping Japanese commuters as mentioned above. Scianna has captured pictures of people and animals asleep for over thirty years; a selection of what he says are “thousands” of these images were published in 1997 in a charming book: to sleep, perchance to dream (11)

This series takes the unaware into a different place, the subject is unaware of not just the camera but of everything. His subjects range from children to statues, from office workers to vagrants but all share the contented expression of a person asleep. We often strive to capture movement and tension but Scianna seeks out stillness and calmness. However, he is a journalist and documentarist at heart so the settings speak of the subjects’ human condition and identity as loudly as if they were awake to tell their own stories.

Sleep - Steve Middlehurst 2014

Sleep – Steve Middlehurst 2014

As discussed elsewhere I avoid photographing homeless or distressed people but the picture above is the exception that proves the rule. I was unable to resist photographing this gentleman asleep on cardboard on a street corner in St. Johns, Antigua. I fully recognised that it was a Caribbean cliché and understand the moral risks of victim photography or becoming a Nikon tourist but I was interested not so much in the man but in the effort he had put into building a bed on a public street. However, I was reminded of this picture when looking at the work of Francis Alÿs.

From the series Sleepers - Francis Alÿs

From the series Sleepers – Francis Alÿs

Alÿs is a Belgium born photographer who lives and works in Mexico city. Since 1999 he has collected pictures of sleeping dogs and humans on the streets of his adopted home (9). He is interested in the paradox of engaging in such a private act as sleep in public places. Alÿs cites August Sander as a reference and has adopted a standardised approach to his sleepers; he uses low angles and avoids intrusive closeups. In the context of the unaware I am intrigued by this project, not only are his subjects unaware at the time but are equally unaware that they have become part of a collection that is apparently much discussed in art circles. Whilst I understand his arguments and believe that he is not consciously exploiting these subjects it raises questions about the appropriateness of turning a sleeping vagrant into a “work of art” and to take them from the street where they are unfortunate enough to live into an art gallery which is presumably a totally alien environment.

From the series Parasomnia - Viviane Sassen 2010

From the series Parasomnia – Viviane Sassen 2010

Viviane Sassen in her series Parasomnia explores the moments when people are between sleep and wakefulness.

She says that this state has similarities to her relationship with photography, like “Putting one foot in an unconscious world”. (9) She sets out to disturb and unsettle the viewer so her pictures are very different to Scianna’s; they are full of unexplained tensions.

However, like Starkey, Sassen creates these strange and haunting images using models but it is a very personal project that has evolved from having lived in Kenya as a small child. She explains that Parasomnia is a form of self analysis; “I am trying to evoke that parallel universe I experienced as a child.” (9)

The Distracted

Stonehenge - Steve Middlehurst 2016

Stonehenge – Steve Middlehurst 2016

Perhaps the most common strategy to remain incognito is to seek out the distracted subject; people so busy concentrating on something else that the photographer remains invisible.

I discussed in an earlier post Martin Parr’s Small World and my own interest in photographing tourists (here) but it is worth mentioning again because it is such an obvious and common approach. I have been collecting photographs of tourists for some time because they offer an unique picture when in an over photographed place. I have little need to prove that I have been to Stonehenge; it has been photographed from every angle and in every possible light and weather, there are over a quarter of a million pictures of the place on Instagram alone. So I tend to turn around and watch the watchers, they are unique and often a little strange.


Notes on Text

(i) Ferdinando Scianna is a Sicilian who in a career that spans over fifty years has been a photo journalist, documentarist and fashion photographer. His work explores a broad spectrum of subjects and as well as being a Magnum photographer he has published more then twenty books although too few of those have been republished in English. There is something very Italian about his work which I find hard to define but is undoubtedly there. For over thirty years he has followed his own set of themes whilst working all over the world, I mentioned his barber’s shop self portraits in another post here, his use of reflections above and his shadow self portraits here. Another one of his themes has been sleep. 



(1) Barthes, Roland. (1980) Camera Lucida. London: Vintage Books

(2) Dyer, Geoff (2012) The Ongoing Moment (originally published in 2005 by Little and Brown). London: Canongate Books (Kindle Edition)

(3) Evans, Walker (1938) American Photographs (Errata edition Books on Books 2011) New York: Errata Editions

(6) le Grange, Ashley. (2005) Basic Critical Theory for Photographers. Kindle edition. Oxford: Focal Press

(9) Higgins, Jackie ( 2014) The World Atlas of Street Photography. London: Thames and Hudson

(10) Eijkelboom, Hans (2014) People of the Twenty First Century. London: Phaidon

(11) Scianna, Ferdinando (1997) to sleep, perchance to dream. London: Phaidon


(4) Evans, Walker (1903 – 1975) Walker Evans Collection (accessed at the J. Paul Getty Musuem 6.2.16) –

(5) Wolfe, Michael (2012) Tokyo Compressions (accessed at the photographer’s website 9.2.16) –

(7) Strand, Paul. Quotations (accessed at Photoquotes 10.2.16) –,Paul#ixzz3zn0tBH9n

(8) Scianno, Ferdinando. Potrfolio (accessed at Magnum 10.2.16) –

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