When photography first appeared and spread throughout the world, carried like plague by intrepid explorers and photographers, there were groups of people who did not want to be photographed. These objections were generally spiritual in nature—they did not want their souls to be captured, in whole or in part—and made little room for explanations of film emulsion and light exposure. This aversion to photography appeared in many areas, including some of the Native American tribes (Crazy Horse supposedly never allowed his photo to be taken), and still lingers in a few places. It’s not hard to understand, either. Having an image made of you, one that captures a moment in time and may exist long after you die, is a powerful act.
While most people don’t believe that a photo captures the soul in any way, taking pictures is still a potent event. Who doesn’t stop to look at pictures, even if only for a moment? We use them as mementos, turn to them when we grieve, use them as proof that we were once someone else: shorter, skinnier, richer, livelier, younger, freer. Pictures can mark transitions, good or bad, and we invest a lot in them. The old cliché about the ratio of worth between pictures and words is one we still wholeheartedly believe.
And yet…and yet. We know damn good and well that words have power. As writers, we traffic in it, and seek to better our skills with them. Words can build a universe, trap a moment in time with as much brutal efficiency as photos, if not the economy. In fact, words can do more than pictures, because a picture only shows us the subject of the picture and the choices the photographer made in framing the shot. There’s information there, sure, but words can give us orders of magnitude more. What the subject saw and thought, why the photographer chose that angle, the history of the area where the photo was taken and more: words give us ingress into a world that remains beyond the camera eye.
Here’s my question: What then, if anything, do we owe the people who we capture with our words? We tend to give away our images rather freely in this day and age, but when we set people down in our words, it’s not their likenesses we’re saving, is it? If we accept the thesis that words can capture aspects of people beyond the visible universe (as far as we can perceive them), does it not follow that by describing them in words, we are capturing more about them than we could have with a picture? Are we not, in some cases, peering beyond what others might wish us to capture and trapping it in text? If so, what debt to these people are we incurring?
Keep in mind here that I’m not talking about skirting libel, nor am I talking about strictly fictional characters (though in a way, many of the same points apply). I’m thinking of people who appear in memoirs, personal essays, non-fiction works and, perhaps most contentiously, people who are dressed up as fictional characters but are wholly or predominantly based on a person. These people may or may not wish to be written about, yet except in rare cases, we as writers don’t really stop to ask, except as a CYA maneuver. I know many people who mine their lives for material—in a way, we all do, but some more obviously than others—yet I’ve never heard anyone mention it out loud. Alison Bechdel wrote a piece on the topic for Slate a couple of years ago, but her focus was much narrower, and didn’t approach the question as a general topic.
I bring this question up not because I have an answer to foist upon you, but precisely because I don’t. My gut feeling is that when we write about people who are real, who we know, we are obligated to be truthful about them, to not use them in caricatured ways or deny them the experience of being human, but how far does that go? You can’t like everybody; people are too varied for that. If you write about real people, eventually you’ll write about someone you don’t like at best, and perhaps loathe with a fiery abhorrence. What do you owe that person, who probably didn’t ask to be your memoir’s hated Iago, your essay’s Lucifer sulking in the pit? Does this capturing of life, this thievery of souls, incur a debt at all? It seems to me it does, as we’re capturing something far more valuable and primal than an image in a lens (again, as far as we can perceive; that seems like a good point to underline).
However, as my wife delights in pointing out, sometimes I am just chock full of hooey. As with everything you read on this blog, the real answer is your call. No satisfaction implied or guaranteed here, my friends.