Photographers are nearly always portrayed as creepy, weird, outsiders in media depictions of them. Patrick Wilson in Hard Candy, Jude Law in Road to Perdition, and Jonathan Byers in Stranger Things are all typical of this stereotype. There is something in portraying photographers as weirdos that people connect with. There is something unsettling about someone who so blatantly watches others while at the same time does not participate. All artists do this: writers, painters, sculptors, poets, etc. Is the fear of artists in general as outsiders? Maybe, though no other type of artist is as consistently portrayed in a negative way as photographers. A painter who paints picture of people and murders them would be considered more of an outlier case than the rule. People unconsciously fear what the photographer might reveal about them. It’s the artist as the other, but unlike most other arts photography is so concrete, it captures a moment directly from life that many would rather not see.
The difference is in the medium. Photography is a nearly exact image of subject. As exact as we’re able to make it anyway. The exactness of that image means that it’s difficult if not impossible to dispute its contents (Photoshop notwithstanding). In seeing a picture of two people together at a particular place you can be fairly certain that those two people were together at that place. That kind of truth doesn’t come about very often. And someone who can reveal that kind of certainty can be seen as a threat.
We all live our lives under a cloud of small lies. We don’t tell our friend that their shirt is ugly. We don’t tell the random person at the grocery store that they smell bad. We don’t tell the important people in our lives a lot of the things we think every day, big and small. The photo, and the person taking it especially, threatens to reveal our lies. As Jonathan Byers says in Stranger Things, “Sometimes, people don’t really say what they’re really thinking. But you capture the right moment…it says more.” The potential for having your inner workings revealed to the world is scary. Even if the person viewing the photographer/photo isn’t the subject being revealed, the idea of a person with that power is frightening enough to see them as a dangerous other.
But people are always taking pictures of everything all the time. There are websites devoted to disposable photography. If photos were the threat wouldn’t everyone with a phone be capable of wielding that dagger? No. The danger in revealing the truth lies in the hands of someone with a level of skill that the amateur doesn’t have. The threat lies in the skill and dedication of the above average. Your aunt snapping pictures at the family reunion isn’t a threat. Your cousin framing shots with a medium format camera and a light meter is.
As digital photographic techniques become simpler I wonder what this will do to the stereotype of the creep photographer. One way things could go is that photography (both skillful and not) will become so ubiquitous that the danger it now seems to present will be so diluted as to be easily ignored. Or the inability to distinguish between the average indiscriminate photo taker and someone with the talent for revealing what is hidden will become so difficult that public photography will become anathema. I think the former scenario is more likely than the latter. In fact I think we’re now living in the beginning of that period. The problem with that scenario though is that if the ability of photography to get at some hidden truth is seen as diluted its effectiveness as artistic expression will also be diluted. It’s a sad reality but it seems to be the one we are heading for. The result of eliminating the stereotype of the photographer as a creep is replacing it with the photographer as insignificant.