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Fear of the Person Across the Camera

Artist Blog by Zexuan Zeng

For Christmas 2021, I traveled to Switzerland to visit some friends. At that time I had just started my studies in Germany and was curious about everything. I had just gotten a point-and-shoot from a friend. for 50 euros I thought it was a good deal. Before dinner I wandered the streets of Zurich photographing anything I found interesting, I had a mere four or five rolls of film in my backpack, but I felt I could document the whole world. Through the French window, I think it was a pair of twins. One girl was lying on a bench, the other stood up and reached out to her sister, and a lady - I think it was their mother - looked at them with a smile. It was such a warm scene. The window reflected the green light and I pressed the shutter. The woman noticed my camera and gave me a slightly unhappy look. Now that I think about it maybe I should have just left. But I went into the restaurant, explained who I was, and why I couldn't just delete the photo because I was nearing the end of a roll. I offered to exchange emails and I would send her the photo in the future and let her decide if she wanted to keep it. She was gentle and friendly and I could tell she was concerned but accepted the offer. Just as we were exchanging contact her husband returned to the table from the toilet and the lady briefly explained the incident. The man asked to see my camera, which I handed to him without a second thought. I saw him fiddling with the camera with my residual vision, but the next second he opened the rear compartment and ripped out all the film as I watched in disbelief, cursing and demanding that I leave. I remember it well, it was the 32nd picture.

I think after that I had an overwhelming fear of the people I was photographing. That carefree feeling was no longer there, and many times, even in relatively safe environments such as public spaces or events, I still walked in with a sense of a battle. Sure, the world isn't that bad(?) and there are plenty of people who welcome the camera, but I can't let my guard down and walk into others with pure curiosity again. In a way, this has made me pick up my medium and large format cameras more often because the slower process allows me to be more assertive and say, "Yes, I would like to take your picture." It also made me braver in a sense, because experiencing being treated rudely has allowed me to be more comfortable with a lot of issues - at the end of the day, not everyone wants to rip your film out, they just want to know what you stand for.

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