Werner Heisenberg, the Uncertainty Principle & The Photographer as The Lone Ranger


Good Evening:

Two couples, both hetero, all Caucasian, tried to walk home from the LGBT Pride Parade today. They had had a great time at the festivities, and now they chattered happily amongst themselves as they headed west on Market Street. However, as they approached the intersection of Market & 11th Street, one of the women, long dark hair, sunglasses, black pants, and a white tank top with a graphic design, suddenly went down in a heap. A tall, burly non-white male with powerful arms and massive shoulders had knocked her down.

“Watch where you goin’, white b****!”

“Hey, you knocked me down!”

“You walked in front of me! You walk in front of me, you go down!”

“You had no right to knock me-”

“I had my rights! You rights don’t count! Get in my way, you go down! Hey, you! You li’l s***! You the b****’s boyfriend? I’ll kick your a** you get any closer! Do I have to beat the h*** outta all four a’ya?! I’ll do it! I will break both you skinny a** white boys like sticks! You messed wit’ me?! I will kill all four a’ya! You hear me?? You–will–die!! Hear me?? YOU-WILL-”

And then he changed. Suddenly.

In the space of less than a second, he stopped shouting, bent his head down, pivoted 180 degrees, and walked as fast as he could as far from his four intended victims as possible. They stood in place, stunned into immobility. What on earth could have made him change like that? What on earth could have rendered him harmless like that? What on earth could have scared him like that? What on earth could have made him flee like that? What? What???

This made him change like that:

Encounter on Market: Thug Threatening Two Couples, 30 June 2013

Encounter on Market: Thug Threatening Two Couples, 30 June 2013

He realized that I had taken several pictures of him.

And he fled.

The quartet needed rescuing; take only one glance at the dude in the purple tights and it becomes clear that none of them knew how to defend themselves. In fact, they had just stood there, paralyzed–even after I had helped them! I walked past the two couples without identifying myself or telling them what I had done. They never knew. They never had the chance even to say, “Who was that masked cameraman?” “I don’t know, but he left behind a silver memory card.”

Werner Heisenberg probably despised how ignoramuses such as yours truly abuse and misuse his famous Uncertainty Principle. Werner never said “the mere act of observing something changes it.” If anything, that statement not only misstates Heisenberg, it also confuses the Uncertainty Principle with The Observer Effect (Physics), not to mention the fact that it also oversimplifies, misinterprets, and misstates The Observer Effect (Physics)! Which, incidentally, is not the same thing as The Observer Effect in information technology. Wow, was that a helpful addition or what?!

And yet…

Whether you mislabel it the Uncertainty Principle, or whether you oversimplify it as The Observer Effect (Physics), the phenomenon does exist in the world of photography! Ever pose for the camera? Then you have almost certainly adopted an unnatural pose for you, and smiled differently from your regular smile. Like most photographers, I don’t want my subjects to know that I am observing them in order to photograph my subjects as they are. Portrait photographers are an obvious exception, but that is a different subgenre of the art of photography. However, at that moment in time it became clear that the bully had to know that The Observer Effect (Physics) had taken effect. In effect, he had to know that I observed him before I could change his behavior from dangerous to harmless.

This comes as a real surprise. It has never occurred to me that I can take effective street photographs after people realize that I am taking photographs. I don’t mean to claim that the above photo is a good-quality picture: let’s face the facts; I took a poor photograph. Nothing good about this photograph exists except the good it did.

Shouting “Hi Ho, Nikon! Away!” I Remain,

Yours Truly,

Vonn Scott Bair


7 responses »

  1. Weren’t you worried that having seen you snapping he might come after you? Or perhaps you are a black belt judo expert 😉

    Still all’s well that ends well. I like the idea of the Lone Ranger!
    Jude xx

    • Heyjude: I recognized that possibility, but these people needed help; they had done nothing to defend themselves, and he had started to lose what little self-control he might have. Vonn Scott Bair

    • Tina: Thanks for writing. This whole business of the observed observing the observer observing the observed strikes me as one of the more interesting subjects of philosophical/ethical/moral inquiry in photography. Vonn Scott Bair

  2. Pingback: Homelessness in San Francisco, 20 October 2013 | The San Francisco Scene--Seen!

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