Observer vs. Participant


Kathy & I attended a jazz concert recently with two of our favorite jazz musicians. Afterwards we were talking about the music and how different a live performance is from the recorded music that we listen to at home. When we’re at home we tend to listen to “quiet” music – light jazz but also classical, guitar, piano, new age-y spa stuff. And it’s almost always instrumental. We find that vocal music interferes with our ability to think, especially when we are writing or reading. And if a live version of a tune comes on, I often skip it or remove it from the playlist.

Of course when we go to a live show we expect to be entertained. A lot of the music we listen to at home would put us and everyone else to sleep if we were to hear it at a live show.

The explanation I came up with has parallels with photography. Most of us spend our photographic time as observers, looking outward to see what there is and responding to it. We’ll sometimes be participants, such as at a wedding or baby shower. That is a little different because we are part of the action, rather than being outside looking in. But we take on a different role when we are participating in the action, and people respond differently to us when we are obviously taking pictures as opposed to an anonymous observer.

When I listen to music at home, I intend for it to support whatever I’d doing, which is usually to fade into the background. I am an observer but not actively involved in the performance. When I photograph, I generally try to be a part of that same background, observing and recording but not participating. On occasion I will photograph an event, and in that case my role changes. I am then part of the “performance” and an obvious participant. And there is a recognizable difference in the photographs that result from the two roles, in many ways like the difference between a recording and a live performance.

5 thoughts on “Observer vs. Participant”

  1. Firstly, very amusing photo and most appropriate to your post; all those people with their heads down except for that one guy, the lone guy who seems to be both a participant and an observer of the world he’s in.

    Like you I will have music on while I do other tasks and it has to be music I’ve heard many times and not, for example, a new album by an artist I like. For me, to listen to a new album in such a manner would be akin to walking around a gallery while reading a book or having an unrelated conversation with a friend.

    Anyway I can well imagine that in the scenarios you express in the last paragraph, that such situations would create different styles of photos. But I wonder if the cause for the difference is, as you suggest, due to observation versus participation. As a photographer doesn’t the very act of observing put us instantly “in the picture” so to speak, thus making us participants by default? For a photographer, at what point is observing not participating?

    Hmmm… though re-reading your post I am starting to understand the subtle distinction you are making. I’ll be thinking more about this 🙂

  2. Thank you, Cedric. I found the scene to be amusing myself, which is why I couldn’t resist taking the photo. What you couldn’t know from looking at the photograph is that the guy on the left is watching a television. Just another source of distraction! It does add an element of uncertainty that I like.

    1. Ah, I did think that he was probably looking at an Arrivals/Departures board or a television but I preferred to go with the illusion that he was simply admiring the engineering of the building he was in or maybe just contemplating the joys of travelling. Oh well, it’s not the first time my illusion’s been shot down 🙂

  3. How about another analogy: Would you rather watch a photographer take pictures, or view the final pictures themselves? 🙂

    1. Mark, I will admit that there have been many occasions where I have been equally fascinated by both options so to choose one over the other would be difficult for me.

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