Other people, other lives

Autrui. French word. I rather like it. How would you translate it into English? Other people, perhaps, or simply others. It’s one for writing more than speech, an indefinite pronoun that can also do duty as a subject. It crops up in Article Four of the Declaration of the Rights of Man: “La liberté consiste à pouvoir faire tout ce qui ne nuit pas à autrui” – “Liberty consists in being able to do anything that does not harm others”.

Can a photograph do harm? If the question refers not to the ways a photo can be used or misused but rather to the act of picture-making itself, I’d say: in the great majority of cases, almost certainly not. And yet I’ve rarely found it an easy business to point a camera at other people, even when – as in the picture above (click or tap to expand) – they don’t know I’m there.

Business. As in other people going about their business. As in minding their own business. As in what business is it of mine? If there’s a potential for harm, it’s surely – were I to be spotted mid-aim – in a subject’s injured sense of intrusion, of unwanted scrutiny, even of theft. I take a picture; it isn’t given. There’s no contract, no consent.

Nevertheless, a lot of the photos I love show people caught unawares. Landscapes, abstracts, studio portraiture, all good; street photography, as it’s known these days, better still. When I moved to Paris in the mid 1990s, I knew I’d take a lot of pictures, especially of people; that was one of the reasons for going there in the first place. My photo heroes were Brassaï, Doisneau, Cartier-Bresson and Ronis, the ‘humanist’ masters whose city scenes and citizens I pored over in books.

But I found that emulating the greats wasn’t just a question of technique; it also needed cheek. It didn’t help that I was using a single lens reflex camera instead of Doisneau’s far less conspicuous twin lens reflex number. With a TLR, you compose the shot by looking into the viewfinder from above, behaving no more suspiciously than a man reading a book; with an SLR, you raise the camera to your eye and aim it straight at the subject, much like a gun. It’s a movement that made me feel skin-crawlingly indiscreet.

That’s possibly why the group of men in the photo above, which I took at the Parc de Belleville on a baking-hot August afternoon, are not – so to speak – bang in the crosshairs. Not that I think it matters; in fact, among the pictures I took in those early hit-and-miss months, it’s one I still like best. I like the rapport between the two men on the right, the suggestion of a smile on the one facing left, and the strong diagonal up to the woman on the bench that suggests a reason for the smile.

There’s a poignancy in it, too. I can’t help wondering: what are those three men doing now? What have 25 years done to them? This summer I learned something new about an old photo by scanning it and zooming in on the book held by the man on the right. There was just enough detail to make it out: the Folio edition of Karen Blixen’s Ombres sur la prairieShadows on the Grass. I was strangely moved.

Was it so strange, though? I’ve come to think that what I was most strongly drawn to in the work of Brassaï, Cartier-Bresson, Ronis et al were the glances into other lives, the doorways to fellow feeling, the opportunities for sympathetic speculation. In any case, that’s my alibi for pointing a camera at strangers, uneasily or not. Autrui has the same root as altruism, therefore all street photography is altruistic; discuss.


An English translation of the Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen, first promulgated in 1789, can be found on the website of France’s Conseil Constitutionnel here; the original is here.