different ways of seeing the same photograph

Gypsy man with dancing dogs, Seville

Gypsy man with dancing dogs, Seville

I took this photo in 2000 in Seville, Spain. I was wandering around with my camera and this scene (which is after all engineered to attract attention) caught my eye. I machine-gunned through half a roll of film on my Nikon N90s and gave the man some money, but less than he wanted.

When I took this photo, I wasn’t really thinking much about the narrative of the image. I was attracted to what seemed an instinctually “photogenic” or at least “photographable” event. As I snapped these photos, I was concerned with composition and exposure, not with context. If I had anything to say with these photographs, it was merely “this is novel — look at it.”

This photo usually gets a reaction when I am showing a collection of travel photographs. Ninety percent of the time, people react with a chuckle or a smile. People like dogs, and these dogs are cute in their brightly-colored clothing.

Occasionally, people have a much different reaction. They see this photograph as a document of animal cruelty, and/or as a stereotype of the Romani (Gypsy) people as beggars and buskers.

I think the first group (the majority of people who react affably to the photo) are experiencing the image as a fixed moment in time. Perhaps they imagine themselves happening upon this scene while on vacation, just as I did. The second group (the minority of people who are offended by this photo) are experiencing not only this instantaneous occurrence, but are also considering the experience not of the photographer, but of the subjects. They imagine what life is like either a.) for the dogs, forced to stand uncomfortably on hind legs for several hours each day, wearing costumes and a chain leash, or b.) for the elderly man, possibly the descendant of generations of buskers, standing in the sun for decades, exchanging dignity for the charity of amused tourists.

The first reaction involves a degree of passivity — the photo is something to be seen, not something to think about. (Or you could say, this photograph does not demand thoughtful reflection.)

The second reaction requires some creative license and some presumptions. Being a creative and presumptuous person myself, I guess I am more gratified by the second interpretation — which makes the image simultaneously less pretty and more interesting.


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