Looking Back at the Photo I Regret Taking

bridge-to-nowhere-diyphotography-000I typed the title for this article hours ago. After typing it, I spent an hour answering emails, having a snack, watching a little TV, and checking up on friends and family in Israel. For a full hour after all of that, I stared at a blinking cursor. Taunting me. Vexing me. Daring me to write something meaningful. My wife just came into the office to see if I needed anything. She read the title from over my shoulder and asked, “Don’t you mean the photo you regret NOT taking?”

It’s a valid question. After all, in a world where I at least have my iPhone with me all the time, there is always a camera at hand. It may not always be a perfect shot, but I shouldn’t have too many regrets about photos not taken. “No, the title is right. It’s about the photo I regret taking.”

“This should be interesting,” she said, pulling up a chair. “Tell me about it.”

The Bridge to Nowhere

In downtown Atlanta, there is a bridge that– quite literally– goes nowhere. Originally built in 1912, what had been part of a major thoroughfare into the city’s banking and commercial district is now a span of 100 feet that abruptly ends at a pathetic excuse for a chain link fence. Beyond the fence is a drop of at least 40 or 50 feet. After being rendered useless several years ago, the bridge has become a haven for many of the city’s homeless population, although the dirt, garbage, and crumbling structure might make “haven” a poor choice of words.

This is the scene of the photo I regret taking.

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The Bridge to Nowhere.

Like a lot of photographers, I find myself drawn to abandoned buildings and urban decay. Colors and textures– along with juxtapositions where past and present collide– speak to me. While I know some photographers for whom it’s all about the challenge and the rush of getting inside, for me it’s about the stories these places could tell if only they could talk. I still mostly shoot film when I’m doing street photography, and I knew that the Bridge to Nowhere was definitely a spot that I needed to see for myself through lens of my dad’s old Pentax.

I took a drive down to the bridge on a cold October morning about four years ago. I’d heard that a lot of homeless people make the bridge their home at night, so I waited until mid-morning when I figured most would have cleared out for the day. I encountered one man walking off the bridge as I was walking on and we stopped to talk for a few minutes. It was going to be a good day, Reggie said. This was the day he was going to grab the world by the balls and turn things around. I gave him a few bucks for a hot breakfast. Nobody should have to grab the world by the balls on an empty stomach.

bridge-to-nowhere-diyphotography-002

Reggie on his way to conquer the world.

The Photo I Regret

I had the bridge to myself after Reggie left, so I took my time checking it out. I was blown away. By the garbage. By the dirty mattresses. By the smell. By its proximity to golden skyscrapers containing the offices of some of the biggest banks in the world. Just blown away. No other way to describe it. I shot the skyline. I shot the graffiti. I even shot the garbage. As I neared the end of the bridge, I got down on my knees to shoot the fence– and the nothingness that lay just beyond it.

It was then I noticed that I wasn’t alone on the bridge after all.

bridge-to-nowhere-diyphotography-003

The photo I regret taking.

I actually felt my heart break when I saw him. I remember thinking that nobody should have to live like this. To take the shot or not to take the shot? That was the question. Or should have been. I think the fact that I only shot one frame and quietly withdrew speaks to the fact that I wasn’t completely comfortable taking the photograph. But I did take it, and I’ve regretted it ever since.

Why I Regret Taking It

I’ve never been able to shake the feeling that in some small fashion I took something from him that day. I know that even now in the 21st century there are cultures in the world that believe you take away part of a person’s soul when you take their picture. I certainly don’t agree with that philosophy, but I don’t judge it either. Being a street photographer, I obviously have no qualms about taking photos of people going about their daily lives without their knowledge or permission. So, why is it that almost four years later I still don’t feel right about taking this photo?

I’ve had a few theories on this since that chilly October morning. The first lies in the overriding, in-your-face symbolism of the image. Here is a photo of a man sleeping on a filthy mattress in a cardboard box at the very edge of a street that is literally going nowhere. A dead end. If hope was looking for a place to die could it be right here on this abandoned, century-old slab of concrete? And if the gentleman in this photo does have any hope left, have I somehow cheapened it with my intrusion? If not hope, what about pride? This man lives on the precipice of a man-made cliff. Surely not by choice, so what brought him here? What sort of failed dreams and aspirations brought him to this particular edge? These are a few of the questions that swirl around in my head whenever I come back to this photo.

The big question in my mental tug-of-war, however, is this: By taking this photo– by freezing this desperate, depressing moment in time– have I somehow given it a degree of permanence? Even if by some miracle his story has a happy ending, have I somehow tarnished that story by creating a permanent record of this particular chapter?

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At the edge of the cliff.

I realize some will feel that I am WAY overthinking this. They may be right. There are times when I feel that way myself. Other times I’m not so sure. What I do know, however, is that we have the ability to tell some incredibly powerful stories with these light-capturing boxes we carry with us. Does that necessarily mean that every story should be told? I don’t know. It’s not for me to say. What I do believe is that we sometimes need to take a moment and think about the images we are about to capture. At least I do. From the moment I lifted the camera to my eye, composed, focused, and snapped, no more than three or four seconds could have passed. Would I have still released the shutter– and still regretted it– had I taken an additional second or two to think about the subject and his circumstances?

I wish he’d been awake at the time. Maybe if I’d talked to him first. Maybe if I’d asked if I could take his portrait. Maybe if I’d been able to give him something in return.

Maybe…

What about you? Have you ever regretted taking a photo? Tell us about it in the comments.

Photos are all Copyright Guyer Photography. All rights reserved.

 

  • dontwanttoknow

    This is more rhetorical than anything but if you regret it so badly…why post it on the internet, which is definitely a step worse than simply taking the photo of him?

    • Koneko_angel

      This is exactly what I wanted to say… If you’re feeling so bad about this photo, just delete it, don’t post it on your site and… oh magic… the photo disappears and it’s almost like it never existed. But now every reader can get a copy of your photo that supposedly make you feel so bad since you took it, and see this man you stole a part of his life. This is pathetic…

    • catlett

      But he doesn’t get clicks that way so NOW he can get clicks on the photo that he claims to regret.

    • Mike

      Hopefully it is as a warning to the rest of us. But really I don’t see the point of this article. Everyone that shoots street has a lapse of judgement and snaps a photo of a homeless guy, and everyone that is not a sociopath regrets it, usually immediately.

  • derek byrne

    You could have always returned and given him a hot meal or a some clothing no longer wanted. You regret taking it but make a blog post about regretting taking the image in the first place? Now you could get some mileage out of your regret by doing a follow up post about how you regret bloging about….

    • Jeffrey Guyer

      You’re right Derek. Unfortunately, by the time I got back with food 20 minutes later he had already left.

  • Mike Carson

    Having read this article all I’m left with is a feeling that you’re maybe a bit too pretentious for your own good. The fact that you draw such attention to something you “regret” is also dubious. Regret isn’t something you showboat, you either hide it or try to make amends for it. If you truly felt regret then this article wouldn’t exist. Not that I think you should, again I would have no qualms if this had been my experience, but again that’s where the feeling of pretentiousness I get.

    • http://wilcfry.com/ Wil Fry

      “Regret isn’t something you showboat, you either hide it or try to make
      amends for it. If you truly felt regret then this article wouldn’t exist.”

      I can’t speak for the author, but in my personal life I tend to disagree. It’s okay to share regret. It’s better than letting it stew inside, or tucking it away to wait for that night you get really drunk and all your regrets start shaking loose at once. I regret many things in my life, especially things from about age 16 to age 27.

      I don’t always blog publicly about my regrets, but I talk about them to my wife, to my friends, to my siblings and parents. If I do blog about them, I get the benefit of outside, untainted opinions.

      • Jeffrey Guyer

        Precisely my point, Wil. Thanks for joining the conversation.

      • Mike Carson

        I suppose you’re right. The reason this article bothers me though is the lack of any depth or real content. It uses ideas so vague like the idea of “capturing the soul” to try to lend weight but then dismisses them in the same sentence. That makes any sense of real regret seem disingenuous.

        There are issues that could be raised e.g. If the homeless have no home do they deserve no privacy and the like, but this article doesn’t even come close to touching on that or anything else close to an actual idea.

        The whole thing just shouts “Aren’t I deep” while being as shallow as a kiddie pool.

        • http://wilcfry.com/ Wil Fry

          Perhaps. Don’t read my blog then. :-) I’m perfectly comfortable scratching the surfaces of many ideas without always requiring myself to get terribly deep or profound.

          • Janet

            I say, scratch the surface, and let everyone else replying get terribly deep or profound. Its a conversation starter, not the entire kit and caboodle leaving everyone else with nothing to say. Agree or not doesn’t matter. It started us talking and that is the accomplishment.

      • JodiRenshaw

        It is absolutely okay to openly share your regrets. What I don’t feel comfortable with is the author sharing the photo. It is a photo that I would regret taking too. And I would describe the photo, not show it so publicly in order to express my regret. I think the message about why he regrets the photo is solid and well-stated. But the message seems dumbed down by the photo.

    • Jeffrey Guyer

      Pretentiousness is attempting to impress by affecting greater importance, talent, culture, etc., than is actually possessed. Nothing could be further from what I was trying to accomplish here. A big part of what this site and others like it try to accomplish is to start conversations about issues that affect us, not only as photographers, but everyday people also.

      I’m not a showboating kind of guy. Never have been. As a matter of fact, if I were a showboat I highly doubt I’d have ever wrestled with the emotions behind this photo. Regret isn’t somehow negated just because it’s talked about in the open. I actually feel sorry for people who are never able or willing to share their regrets– that’s a lot of weight to carry around on the inside.

      • Mike Carson

        And yet you chose to show the image that you apparently regretted taking enough to write a blog post about. You have to see how that undercuts your point in a massive way by making your pride in the shot, as it is a good image, seem more powerful than your regret. Why else would you show it rather than just describe it.

        • Ian Hecht

          If he hadn’t shown the image, you can bet there would be commenters calling him out on that.

          • Mike Carson

            I agree, this is the internet, however his position would have seemed more genuine. As it is showing the image has weakened everyone’s belief in how genuine his feelings are. Not showing it would have reinforced it.

    • http://www.notquitewonderwoman.com April

      I disagree, it’s okay to draw attention to regrets sometimes. Maybe writing about it is a way to explore feelings, to get feedback, open a conversation, and in someway feel redemption. Maybe it will make someone who has been detached and shooting street photography for years step back and think about people as humans and not as subjects. Maybe it made someone like me remember two photographs, one from my recent past and one in Chicago eight years ago, that I still have conflicted feelings about. Maybe it made me reexamine the issue of intrusion and art.
      Just a thought.

  • Ali

    I’m curious as how inviting thousands of others into this man’s personal situation without his knowledge or approval is displaying your regret. Dignity is becoming more and more subjective…

  • Ed Dersch

    Coming soon, judging by the comments: “Looking back at the blog post I regret making”

    • Jeffrey Guyer

      Everyone’s entitled to an opinion, Ed. Obviously, I don’t agree with many/most of the comments, but the articles has certainly spawned a conversation. Thanks for stopping by.

  • Ed Dersch

    In all seriousness, I think it would have been more poignant if you would have simply described the photo in the post instead of actually showing it.

    • Jeffrey Guyer

      Thanks, Ed, but I highly doubt that. This is, after all, a photography site. Once you raise a point you have to show people what you’re talking about. Had I chosen to omit the photo I’m sure people would be jumping all over me for not including it.

      • http://www.notquitewonderwoman.com April

        I would have. I actually used my regret photo in a blog post about the people of Ecuador. For the simple reason that he was one of the people that became impressed in my mind and helped me define the people I saw collectively but also as individuals. I kinda thought it would be more insulting to not include the photo.

      • Ed Dersch

        True enough, you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t, unfortunately.

  • http://www.niekvandermeer.com/ Niek van der Meer

    When you regret taking a picture it would make sense that you wouldn’t want anyone else to see it. Posting it online is the opposite of that.

  • Ederson Nunes

    No serious talking here, you are just being naïf.

  • http://www.mcr-street.com Andy

    I agree with many of the comments, posting the image itself shows that the writer is in some way
    proud of the image and not as upset or disturbed by its contents as he
    has described. While the article could have been written in a way to
    warn others about the perils of snapping before even thinking of what
    you are taking, photograph or otherwise, it has been skewed somewhat into a look at the bad thing I did. Is the writer looking for validation from the community?

    If you regret taking it, you just made it a very permanent regret.

    • Jeffrey Guyer

      It’s possible to be proud of something and still have second thoughts about it. The photo– to me– is certainly compelling and tells a story. That doesn’t somehow negate any of the other feelings I have about the photo or the experience.

      The point of this article was not seek anybody’s validation, not was it to talk about “the bad thing I did.” It was to simply pose a question and start a conversation.

      • http://www.mcr-street.com Andy

        Thank you for taking the time to reply.

        Fair enough, it worked then. Maybe the title should read “Looking back at the photo I kind of regret taking”.

        I don’t particularly think the photo is a bad one. There is nothing wrong with it, I like the composition it tells a story, we just don’t know what that story is.

        Whether right or wrong it is thought provoking and still a valid work for generating conversation, as is evident by the number of posts you have received. I do find it interesting that people reading this have generally said a similar sort of thing! Maybe the way it was written made it come across differently than intended.

  • https://www.facebook.com/ad.destecroix Ad De Ste Croix

    Taking the photo is one thing. Promoting it is something else!
    This is what I did in a similar situation. Hope this idea helps for next time.
    http://www.saintecroix.co.uk/blog/2014/1/the-forgotten-stories-behind-the-storm

  • http://www.budzilla.com Bud Simpson

    I think you have projected too much toward this man’s situation. What makes you so dead sure he’s miserable?

    I was approached by what I assumed to be a panhandler in Seattle one afternoon. My first reaction was to recoil and keep a hand on my camera, lest he run away with it. Turns out he was a college educated veteran, extremely well-spoken, and happier than he had ever been in his life. We sat on a bench in Pioneer Square and talked for an hour. He didn’t want money – he craved companionship. I learned something that afternoon – that my opinion of someone’s life and their place in the world didn’t mean shit to anyone but me.

    The first man you ran into was going out to grab life by the balls and turn things around. You saw him as heroic, and helped him on his way. Maybe the man in the box grabs life by the balls, but works nights. A sleeping hero. You see him as a victim and a threat to your comfortable notion of life. Why didn’t you help him?

    If you go back and talk to the subject of your image, you may find that he’s way happier than you are, and far less concerned with regret. Then again, maybe not. You’ll never know until you try.

    The magic of street photography is the realization that everyone has a story, and your job is to reveal that story, not necessarily to interpret that story.

    Your regret is superficial, because you’ve already asked the “what-ifs”. Go back. Look him in the eye. Get the image you missed.

    • Jeffrey Guyer

      Those are very good points, Bud. While I suppose it’s possible that I’ve made more of his situation that is actually the case, but if you knew the area in question I think you’d doubt it as much as I do.

      I did try going back about 20 minutes later with some food, but he was gone.

      I once met someone on the street who told me he wasn’t homeless– that he was houseless. It was an interesting distinction that I try to keep in mind whenever I meet people under these circumstances.

      • http://www.budzilla.com Bud Simpson

        My point exactly, Jeff. Thanks for the exchange of ideas.

  • http://www.dornbyg.com dorn

    I think this:
    Did you go find the person in the photo? Did you ask them what they thought? Did you do anything at all to make it right? That is, IF you do feel bad about it…

    Seems odd that all of the things that you seem to feel bad about are speculative. I understand that photography is quite a bit singular perspective but this whole post was nothing but a guilty “what if”.

  • https://www.facebook.com/don.barnard.14 Don Barnard

    you got your wires crossed somewhere…
    should you regret taking the photo? or do you think you regret taking the photo, rather than admit the problem was you walked away and did nothing for him?

    • Jeffrey Guyer

      Hi, Don– Unfortunately, he was already gone when I returned 20 minutes later with food. I tried.

  • http://photography.dustingrau.com Dustin Grau

    A man is down and out, and you took something ephemeral: Privacy. Without getting into the legalities, we could argue that a photo of a person while in a public setting is fair game. But here’s a man who is more or less in his “home” and even though a corner is exposed for your shot, he still has the right to privacy in his home just like anyone else. I don’t fault you, I just think that may be an aspect that makes you uncomfortable with the shot. I’ve done it in several abandonments I’ve visited, and I understand that feeling. I could walk an entire building feeling enthralled by the history and decay around me…but then I wander into a room that is quite obviously being occupied by someone. Suddenly my mood changes, and I feel the need to leave. Sometimes I’ve photographed the living conditions, but other times I don’t feel that I should.

    • Jeffrey Guyer

      That’s a very interesting way of looking at it, Dustin. Thanks for joining the conversation.

  • VVegaSTL

    It’s a typical internet-commenter thing to not see the forest for the trees. I can definitely see what the author is trying to do and the conversation they’re trying to open up. Showing or not showing the picture is up for debate, but it can also be argued that the article – especially on a photography site – would have lost impact for not showing it (and the comments area would be filled with criticism for not showing it).

    How the subject feels is up for debate, and I do agree with others where his situation is speculative at most. Perhaps there could be shame in it, but should he now be in a better situation, there might be nothing wrong with a reminder or memory of where we were, or to appreciate what we have now.

  • https://www.facebook.com/itsmeelis Elis Inha

    Ditto @don barnard

  • http://wilcfry.com/ Wil Fry

    “And if the gentleman in this photo does have any hope left, have I somehow cheapened it with my intrusion?”

    You might ask the same question about anyone you photograph in public. Just because someone’s dressed to the nines and *looks* like they have their shit together doesn’t mean they aren’t at the end of their own rope. Depression, hopelessness, and even suicidal thoughts certainly aren’t exclusive to men sleeping on or under bridges. Some of my own most emotionally troubled times were masked by my “got it together” appearance.

    “What about you? Have you ever regretted taking a photo?”

    My own tendency is to not make the photo if I’m uncomfortable about it, but I don’t judge anyone else for shooting first and having qualms later. After all, it’s just a collection of pixels. :-)

    • Jeffrey Guyer

      Great points, Wil. It’s been suggested that I’m projecting too much onto his story. It’s possible. And it’s true that you never know what’s really going on behind the scenes.

  • Tony

    Does no one proofread these articles before they go live? This article has no content- rich guy takes a picture of a homeless man. He used film so it’s art. Now he feels bad (not for the photograph, mind you, but for having money). If you really feel bad, go live on the streets for a month. Or commit suicide. That would show how much the photograph actually meant to you.

    • Jeffrey Guyer

      Hey, Tony– from what part of this article exactly were you left with the impression that I’m rich?? I bust my ass every single day at multiple jobs to keep a roof over our heads and food on our table. If you have something constructive and worthwhile to add to the conversation, by all means let’s hear it. But if the best you can come up with is for me to commit suicide, please keep it to yourself. My kid reads this and that comment was WAY out of line.

      • Tony

        To that man, you ARE rich. And I didn’t tell you to commit suicide, I said it would show sorrow- it’s common practice in some Asian countries. Whining about it doesn’t show how deep you are, it’s just whining. Again, the article has no content. If you’re so regretful, why haven’t you done anything about it? Instead of whining about it to other photographers, go do something. But, honestly, I’m more appalled by the editors posting the article than by you writing it.

  • Mike Carson

    After reading some comments made by Jeff I do see how most comments have been about him rather than the issue he tried to raise.

    I think that may be because it’s not something anyone really sees as an issue. I’ve photographed and shared images of the homeless, both with and without their permission and I just don’t see it as a problem, obviously as long as you don’t use it commercially without their permission. I think for most people this is just a non-issue.

    Additionally I’ve never felt guilt or regret about a photo. My personal feeling is that a photo’s power comes from within the viewer rather than the subject. All an image captures is what something looks like. The life experiences of the person looking at it is what creates weight and meaning, or not.

    My grandmother died last year and I felt the urge to photograph her wake and funeral, more to make me feel more comfortable with the whole experience as I’m an atheist and the whole religious element made me uncomfortable. I never even raised this as I felt it might upset too many people and defeat the point of it but I also don’t regret not doing it. I just feel regret is a waste of time, and that’s coming from a recovering Irish-Catholic.

    • Jeffrey Guyer

      “My personal feeling is that a photo’s power comes from within the viewer rather than the subject.”

      That’s a great way of looking at it, Mike.

    • Mike

      I think you are right, we should have focused on the issue and not the picture. Photography as art should never be degrading to its subject. Though I think the actual “regret” picture could have done with a description instead of the actual image itself.

      As an atheist, pictures at a funeral or wake is just not cool. Seriously. A funeral isn’t for the person that died, they can no longer feel. It is for the people that still live. The people that need respect are the ones that are still alive. While many people may not have an issue with themselves being photographed at a funeral, the ones that do are simply not going to stand for it and deserve respect.

      Though considering your thoughts or lack thereof on homeless photo permission, perhaps you fall into the sociopath category I spoke of in another comment. Even if you are not sharing a picture and keeping it to yourself, it might still be degrading to the subject.

      • Mike Carson

        Reading my comment perhaps I wasn’t clear that I never raised the subject of taking the photographs as I knew that it could offend people and therefore I didn’t take any. I put my own feelings aside for the sake of the people to whom the funeral meant more for the sake of their feelings, which is pretty much the opposite of a sociopath. I am by no means offended, I’m just a pedant.

        I would point out however that funeral photography, while not common, is very definitely a thing. Many people want to have a memento of what is a very important day for them and their family almost akin to a wedding or birthday. It all depends on what the family wants.

  • Patrick

    Hi Jeff, despite if you should or shouldn’t post this article. I liked reading it. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    • Jeffrey Guyer

      Thanks, Patrick!

  • https://www.facebook.com/pages/Not-Quite-Wonder-Woman/807492255932218 Not Quite Wonder Woman

    I used a photo of a homeless man in a post about the people of Ecuador for the simple reason that he was one of the people that became impressed in my mind and helped me define the people I saw collectively but also as individuals. I kinda thought it would be more insulting to not include the photo. http://www.notquitewonderwoman.com/ecuador-10-the-people/

  • CynthiaMaine

    I traveled to India in 1966. I thought a lot about whether to take a camera. In the end I decided not to.

    As much as I knew there would be hundreds of beautiful and interesting photo opportunites while there, I decided that I didn’t want to be carrying around and pointing this piece of equipment that cost as much or more than the annual income of some of the people I’d be photographing so I could have a physical memory of my experience there. Hence, all my photos of that trip are in my mind.

    It was a very personal decision. A different person moght have been able to use the camera to make meaningful connections with the people they met. But for me, at that time, leaving the camera home was the right choice.

    Thanks for the article. It’s worth thinking about these things.

  • Moga

    When I took an Intro to Photo class in college, one of the first things we talked about was the ethics of photography. As part of our discussion, we watched a film called “Stranger with a Camera” that investigates the killing of a documentary filmmaker in Kentucky in the 1960′s. Fortunately, the film can be viewed for free here: http://vimeo.com/49778320

    I highly recommend viewing it, especially if you are into street or reportage style photography.

  • http://www.yourmaclifeshow.com/ Shawn King

    No interest in getting into the back and forth of whether you should have posted this or not. Just wanted to say thank you for taking the time to write it and give us your thoughts, regardless of who agrees or disagrees with you.

    • Jeffrey Guyer

      Thanks, Shawn. I appreciate that.

  • http://www.drooltsunami.com Mr. Brimm

    Regret is an interesting subject. It’s dwelling on the past. You can’t change it. Own what you did whether you think it’s right or wrong and act the way you believe you should in the future. It’s a learning opportunity not an anchor to the past. Whatever “regrets” the guy in the shot has you can’t fix.

  • Andrea Tani

    I don’t think you should regret taking this photo, you didn’t damaged that man by doing so. I don’t see the problem publishing it here either.

  • Fish

    Yeah, you are overthinking things. You shouldn’t regret a shot like this because you “stole his soul” or “created something permanent”. You should regret it because you walked into a stranger’s home and shot them asleep, in their bedroom, without permission. Gross and creepy much?

    I mean, sure, you take pictures of people on the street, going about their public business in public, but would you ever, say, poke your head into someone’s bedroom window and take a shot without permission? I suspect, if you are at all a decent human being, you would respect them enough not to. Should it be any different because this guy’s bedroom is, unfortunately, a bit more public than others? Does he not deserve that respect too?

    One of the things you lose when you lose a home is a place that is private. In taking this picture, you exploited that, and treated a homeless man in a fashion you would never treat someone with more resources at their command. You don’t need to make up pseudophilosophical reasons to regret that. You regret it because it makes you a total ass.

  • disqus_C9aHdFPgZl

    beautifully written.