“It’s classified.” Mardi Gras, London 2000.

Friday, 2 July 2010 What's in a name?

One of the first things most photographers will come to learn when shooting editorial portraiture is that there are really no rules any more.  There hasn't really been for quite a long time.  And fashion photographers threw away their rule book even earlier. Photographers doing just whatever the heck they want, probably goes back as far as Man Ray and the dadaists.

But for documentary portraiture there still have to be a few rules, in my humble opinion, otherwise we'll never know what exactly the photograph is suppose to be documenting.  Although everyone's rules will still no doubt be different, one of mine concerns captioning, which I always feel needs to be as accurate as possible but with one exception - names.  

If I photograph someone in a club or on the street, I don't usually ask my subject to sign a model release.  But I'll always ask for their name.  Yet they are obviously under no obligation to give it.  Or give me their correct name.  Or speak to me at all.  And I completely accept that.  So that if someone just walks off and doesn't want to tell me their name, I'll just caption that photograph as "anonymous".

Also, if someone gives me a name that is clearly not their correct name (and says something like "just call me Ethel Minge" for instance) I'll make a judgement as to whether to use that name in the caption or not.  Clearly many people prefer to be known by nick names (like 'Belsen' or 'Tuinol Barry') and that's fine too. Besides, many people are probably better known by their nick names than their real ones. 

And there will also be occasions, like at Gay Pride, where some people will not want me to have their real name for perfectly understandable reasons.

There will also be times when I'll ask one of my subjects what their name is and they'll say something which I find interesting in itself.  And so I'll use that in the caption.  As in the example above.  It was shot at a Gay Pride event which had been rebranded that year as 'Mardi Gras'.  I asked the bloke what his name was and he simply responded "It's classified."   

Which was perfectly good enough for me.