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One Shot

Quite a few years ago I got an assignment to take pictures of Susan Sontag at Lafayette College, in Easton, Pennsylvania. Before Sontag arrived, a PR woman spotted me and came over. “Ms. Sontag does not wish to be photographed while she is giving her lecture,” the stern woman said. “So please wait until she has finished.”

Being a pro-feminist AND a gentleman, I nodded. So I sat in the front row and listened to Sontag deliver a talk that I found absolutely incomprehensible. As incomprehensible as her book, “On Photography.”

When Sontag concluded, she looked at me, the only photographer in the room. “You have exactly one minute to take your pictures,” she said in a wholly unfriendly way.

Her unexpected rudeness threw me off balance. I felt self-conscious because the eyes of the audience were suddenly on me. As a photojournalist I avoid public interaction with my subjects so as to be the objective observer, not the observed.

I raised my Nikon, took a single shot, then turned and walked out.

It’s hardly flattering, as you can see.

Now, on reflection many years later I see my behavior as passive aggressive, perhaps even unprofessional. I walked out after a single shot because I wanted to retaliate with my own kind of condescension. Was my act sexist? What would you have done in this circumstance?

Pffft. You did exactly the right thing.

If I had a chance to do it over again, I would have ignored her unfriendliness and taken as many shots as I could in my alloted one minute. After all, the assignment was not about my feelings but about getting photographs. I was younger in those days, and as my favorite ex-wife once said, my behavior sometimes was a good example of "The tyranny of the easily offended."

Re: Feelings (Anonymous) Expand
You did the right thing and I hope she got the message. Good heavens.

I don't know how she reacted, since I'd turned my back and was walking out. Much more concerned with my desire for retaliation than with what she thought of me!

writers can be a little moody and when they see things, some times its not what's actually there.

Exactly. My view of it is much different now than it was then.

i would have probably done the same thing, or not even taken the shot, but professionally, i agree with your hindsight.

Oh, yes, the right thing to do becomes so clear AFTER the fact!

She had a right not to want to be photographed, but her way of going about it seems a bit gratuitously rude. You (or any particular photographer) didn't really deserve to be the brunt of her generalized anger.

I think she came across as harsh to a lot of people, but my guess is that she simply didn't treat anybody with respect until they earned it from her. Given her political views (most of which I share), it's easy to see how she might take a negative (guilty until proven innocent) view of humanity.

Personally, though, I think people who behave that way (usually celebrities) aren't worth the effort spent trying to figure them out.

It occurs to me that what I did was entirely spontaneous, and driven by the emotion of the moment. Whereas what she did was the result of some forethought. Which makes an understanding of what actually happened even more difficult!

I don't think it was a sexist act per se. And it really wouldn't have mattered who she was, under the circumstances. I mean, the Queen of England probably wouldn't have attempted to be as controlling. Would it have been the same if it was a male writer? That's the test.

And the shot isn't as bad as you think.

RIP, Susan.

Everyone has said all I would but for one thing: where do you get sexism out of taking offense? She wasn't exactly the warmth of humanity there, from what you say.

I haven't commented in a while, but I always value your stuff.

Thanks. Well, the sexism comes from wondering how I would have reacted if it were a man saying the same thing. In that case I most certainly WOULD have started shooting, and getting right into his face. Direct aggression, not any of that passive stuff. I don't know.

Perhaps not flattering, but I think the shot shows a lot, and that is more important than flattering. You did good work with your very limited constraints (self- and other-imposed).

Thanks, but I've never liked that shot for some reason. Maybe it's because I didn't like HER.

I would have used the whopping one minute to take the photographs and that would have been it.

I think what you did was passive agressive, however, the one shot you did get speaks volumes. Your one shot captures the essence of who she really is.

Meanwhile, Susan died today. I'm assuming that is why you posted her picture.

I did a yahoo search on her...and I cannot believe what I found. Her son, David Reiff....I think I personally know him and have worked with him. I wonder if this is the same guy. If it is, this is very freaky.

Re: David, is that you?

Life itself is freaky!

What would you have done in this circumstance?

Ah, to answer the question, I would have been stunned and irritated, and in those circumstances I usually either freeze, or argue. Really, it ends up being a tossup between those two reactions. And it's usually the wrong reaction for the circumstance.

Oddly enough, even though your reasons for what you did might be suspect, especially with hindsight, I still think that perhaps you picked the best possible thing, by accident. Yes, it was your job to get a good picture, but how do you balance your job with respect for a person? Perhaps Sontag was intensely uncomfortable with photographers (for whatever reason), and was only able to relax after you left. You got the shot; you left. You didn't argue non-productively.

But then, who really knows?

I agree with greenshadows. Depending on how I was feeling that day (and if I were still in college at that point) I might have turned the camera around, taken a picture of myself and then walked out. But I have a propensity for being a nasty person.

Now that would have caused a stir!

I would have taken as many shots as my flash would allow in one minute and hope she'd have the yellow brick for another half hour. Nah, I probably would have done the same thing you did.

Peevish perhaps, but not sexist. It was an understandably-irritable response to open rudeness; I don't see overtones of oppression in it. I can't say whether or not it was the right response: on the one hand, I get what you're saying about taking the high road and using your allotted minute to take as many pictures as possible. On the other hand, possibly she wasn't fully aware of how rude and peremptory she'd been, and maybe your one-shot response drove it home. I think it can also be highly effective to take the high road and act gracious about it, maybe thanking her cheerfully. The effect depends on whether she was being rude because she'd had a bad day or was being rude because she's ordinarily rude.

I have to say I don't think it's a bad shot, really.

Thanks. As I've mentioned elsewhere I've never liked that shot, largely because I didn't like her, even though I did respect her status. "On Photography" struck me as the sort of gibberish high intellectuals spout and get away with because nobody has the courage to say it's gibberish. Or just badly written! Either way, she could have done better with it.

ooooh I think I may use her line one day...I've had enough of having my picture taken.

When you do, let me know how the photographer reacts!

How many photographs can a person even properly take in a minute? Two? Three?

The truth is, she asked for a photo in one minute, and you gave it to her in less. She should be pleased.

Whether or not it was the right thing to do is hard to say. Since this was an assignment, and had the picture come out poorly, what would you have done then? Your editor or whomever wouldn't be pleased, and it would be certainly difficult to go back to her for another shot.

Regardless i don't see how this woudl be regarded as sexist. Do you honestly think back then if a man had said it, you would have laughed it off and spent as much time as necessary?