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John Palcewski's Journal

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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?

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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."

Your mature perspective has everything going for it: high road, more professional, all that good stuff. At least consider, though, that Her Maj may have gotten the message, in some small way, that being famous does not give you license to treat people like shit. Maybe the next photographer she dealt with was treated better, you know? Or maybe she tried to kill him. :b

How old were you then, John? :)

I don't have a date on that print I brought with me from America, but I'd guess around 45.

Re: Feelings

Or rather of the easily intimidated?

She didn't intimidate me. While I respected her status as a writer and intellectual I was convinced--and remain so--that inpenetrable works of hers like "On Photography" are not hard to read because her ideas are too profound for ordinary people, but rather because it's merely poorly written. With her truly formidable intellect she surely could have expressed her ideas simply and clearly.

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