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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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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!

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