Halloween in Salem, Massachusetts. Home of the infamous witch trials and current destination for those fascinated by such enchantments. I had heard of this event many times over the last few years since moving to New England, tales of fantastic costumes and delightful characters filling the streets with curiosity and spectacle. Enough said to grab the camera.
Aside from the tales and rumors I had heard, I really had very little idea what the streets would hold. All that I knew as the train car clicked closer to my destination was a sense that the day’s shooting would likely take a more up-close and intimate approach to my subjects. I don’t always get a gut feeling like this preceding a day of shooting, but when I do, I can’t help but follow it.
Upon arrival, it was immediately obvious there would be more than enough opportunity for making images. The cobble stone streets were teeming with people, costumes and characters a plenty. I began to weave through the scene, choosing to hold back from shooting for a few moments in order to get a pulse on the crowd, breathe in the atmosphere and ground myself before beginning. I find that if I can approach a day of shooting from a more centered place of intention, the quality of interactions and resulting images are dramatically influenced for the good. Deep breath in… and begin.
One of the many dynamics I appreciate most about street photography is the opportunity to encounter strangers. I almost always will approach my subjects and request that we make an image. That simple act of approaching and asking is such a charged experience, currents of surprise, intrigue, wonder and presence flowing between the subject and myself. There is a sense of flirtation, a rich sensuality in the vulnerable act of encountering someone and offering them the opportunity to be witnessed for exactly who they are.
Now in this particular environment, being Halloween after all, many of the people I approached were in costume of some kind, which added an interesting challenge. How do we, as photographers, access the essence of someone who is actively presenting as a character other than themselves? I think the argument can be made that we are all wearing a mask of some kind much of our public facing hours, a mask we secretly hope someone trustworthy and bold enough to approach us might remove through their own willingness to be real, honest and true.
The word semblance is defined as, “the outward appearance or apparent form of something, especially when the reality is different.” So very often I find that those I approach to photograph are at first presenting in a way that is out of alignment with their true essence, with the person they actually desire to be in the world. For fear of judgement, for lack of opportunity, for loss of trust in another to hold a high enough regard for our personhood, we so often put on a mask and keep much of ourselves safely tucked way. It is these parts, these hidden qualities that I, as a photographer, so desperately want not only to see, but celebrate and hopefully cultivate more expression of even after we have parted ways.
This, I think, is really the “goal” of my photographic work, at least when I am at my best, and the best images simply a product of these generative exchanges. If I can use the camera as a culturally viable excuse to enter into someone’s life as a stranger, reflecting to them with unconditional positive regard the goodness they have within them, and offer an image capturing that goodness to prove it, my job is well done.
Acknowledgement amidst and in opposition to anonymity is a powerful gift we photographers have to offer in today’s world, far beyond what I think we even know. And, like Halloween itself, the ways we engage with one another can be a decision to face death itself head on with the kind of bravery that we, I believe, can only muster in right relationship to each other, no masks required.