The Photograph I Did Not Take (Weekly Photo Challenge: Split Second Story)


Good Evening:

As soon as she boarded the 22-Fillmore at 16th & Guerrero, I wanted her picture. I wanted dozens of them.

Though perhaps five foot six inches tall, this Hispanic woman, about 45 years old, might have weighed more than I do (six foot two, 225). I mean seriously, dangerously, morbidly obese. She wore a black leather jacket several sizes too small, very tight black yoga pants, black leather ballet slippers, and a white top that was also a few sizes too small. This same top stretched so much and was made of such thin material that one could clearly see the push-up bra printed with a leopard-skin pattern except the bra was black and white like a zebra.

The finishing touch? The tiny pink Victoria’s Secret paper bag she clutched between her knees (each almost as wide around as a soccer ball).

In other words, a perfect picture that captures in a single frame the stories of obesity and bad taste in America.

Here is that perfect photograph:


I didn’t take any pictures of her.

The issue consists partly of the aesthetics of street photography and partly of the morality of street photography. I remain torn and undecided on both subjects.

I still can’t figure out what constitutes good street photography versus unsuccessful random snapshots, but I have some ideas. Actually, no ideas–more like hypotheses. Actually, no hypotheses–more like wild guesses. About 1 of every 100 street photographs will turn out well because it will capture the character of the person(s) portrayed. About 1 of every 100 street photographs will turn out well because it will capture the situation, action or story portrayed. About 1 of every 10,000 street photographs will turn out well because it will capture the situation, action or story and the character of the person(s) portrayed. Consider Dorothea Lange’s best work during the Depression.

Anyway, those are wild guesses, and they probably aren’t very good ones.

But the woman on the 22-Fillmore would have constituted a perfect subject for this week’s Challenge, and I chose not to photograph her. And that’s where the morality of street photography comes in.

First of all, the legality of street photography is not an issue in the United States. I had every legal right to photograph her.

But did she deserve that?

I mean, we’re not discussing something like Daumier’s Gargantua or Les Gens de Justice (which inspired an inspired animated short film called Daumier’s Law, well worth the search), in which he savaged public figures who had worked rather hard to earn his abuse. For all I know, this woman could be a perfectly decent human being who has a man who calls himself the luckiest guy on the planet. Does she deserve exposure to mockery?

And that’s why I didn’t touch my camera.


Some art repulses me because it doesn’t explore, study or portray everyday people, it mocks them. Ever hear of a photorealistic sculptor named Duane Hanson? I first discovered his sculptures at a major retrospective held at the Wadsworth Atheneum, where my dad worked during the Seventies. I met Mr. Hanson at a reception; he treated everyone kindly, even this teenage kid. But about half of his work seems to exist solely to mock people who might not deserve it. His best work? Brilliant and profound, like the construction worker eating lunch who has paused for a moment because he just realized that he hates his life. But Mr. Hanson also seemed to enjoy making fun of obese people, like the sleeping sunbather at the beach working on a cherry red sunburn, surrounded by empty junk food wrappers and bags, plus one empty can of diet soda.

Hey, don’t let me stop you; if you like this kind of photography, go for it. I won’t impose my prudery on your work, and I’m probably wrong to condemn mockery: you probably take brilliant pictures exposing the foibles and follies of ordinary people. I only want to describe my own evolving and ever-changing aesthetics, my own set of rules of what photographs I should take–aesthetics and rules that will likely change with time. I have simply grown leery of taking pictures of private individuals if it risks exposing them to mockery they don’t deserve.

Daumier attacked the powerful, even serving six months in jail for ridiculing the King of France (a man who deserved the ridicule more than Daumier deserved the jail cell). A woman wearing a black-and-white leopard skin push-up bra might not deserve the same attacks.

Vonn Scott Bair


One response »

  1. Oh dear, where to even start…. Guess i’ll take it linearly, as you presented it.

    “I mean seriously, dangerously, morbidly obese.”

    Stop right there! “Dangerous”?! Give me a few days (actually i’m busy this week, so maybe next week) and i will *INUNDATE* you with studies contradicting common “wisdom” (ignorance) that supersized (politically correct term) people (SSBBW: SuperSized Big, Beautiful Women and SuperSized Big, Handsome Men) are categorically unhealthy. I’ve read of at least one woman in about that height range and over 300 pounds who *regularly runs MARATHONS* with no issues. So many people in this category are so much healthier than me, it makes me cry and sometimes suicidal.

    “Morbidly obese” is one of the more *ridiculous* oxymorons of our age. *Lots* of women (and men) in that badly-labeled pigeonhole are living full, joyous, often *healthy* lives, including at least for many *lots* of sex (which makes me envious and severely depressed, as so far i’m not… with anyone else).

    “In other words, a perfect picture that captures in a single frame the stories of obesity and bad taste in America.”

    Taste is debatable, and while some of her choices might not have been my top choices, from your description i guarantee seeing her would have filled me full of lusty desires. You made the correct decision not mocking her. Now, if you had taken that same photograph as an example of non-mainstream *beauty* and/or celebrating being different/independent freedom of thought, that might have been a good thing. More the goal and contextualization of the photo than its content. You could have presented the photo in a neutral context, allowing viewers to judge as they will.

    “For all I know, this woman could be a perfectly decent human being–”
    –Highly likely.

    “who has a man who calls himself the luckiest guy on the planet.”
    Odds are excellent that would be me, if she and i lived near each other and were a couple. I *DREAM* of women like her. I have dedicated the last few years of my life—and continue to dedicate more—to writing fictional fatlovesex stories about women quite like her (amongst other BBW/SSBBW and people [most often men] who love them).

    I physically ache to be with a woman like her.

    “Does she deserve exposure to mockery?”

    Absolutely not. Seriously, fat mockery/jokes/bigotry is our era’s shameful racial jokes. In the same way most of us bristle and shift in our seats uncomfortably seeing 50-60+ year old videos/movies or hearing old radio shows making jokes about different races or ethnic groups which were perfectly acceptable at the time but are not now, near-future generations will do the same with the fat shaming.

    Vonn, you did *Absolutely* the correct thing not taking the picture, if within your world view it was for the purpose of shaming. Now, had it been for purposes of revealing human diversity in a neutral way, or something positive, it might have been a great picture (and my prurient interests would have quite enjoyed it).

    Given that you’re a photographer and appreciator of photography, i suggest you and anyone else reading this who’s interested head over to The Adipositivity Project ( to see fat bodies celebrated and raised to high visual art.

    If i’m remembering what i’ve read here on The San Francisco Scene—Seen!, i’m recalling that you excel at presenting stories of things which may not be as they seem. This is one of those cases. This woman’s life is likely not perfect and she may not be perfectly healthy (not a lot of people in their 40s and up are *perfectly* healthy), but she’s probably doing better than most ignorant people who look at her think. Contrast that with me: when people look at me, they see an average-to-slender man with a head of thick, mostly-white hair, often bicycling or doing something physical. I think i look like the men on most “senior” drug commercials—but i don’t self-identify as that old! People tell me all the time how healthy i look, yet i have two severe, incurable diseases, both of which are ravaging me, keep me from working, and are shortening my life. One of them, clinical depression, along with near-zero self-esteem and shyness, keeps me from reaching out in any way to this sort of woman, which keeps me from sharing love and healing. Stand me next to this woman and most people will choose me as the healthy one. Most people will be wrong.

    I hope to live long enough to see the end of all flavors of body shaming and far less ignorance surrounding fat people. I hope to live long enough to figure out how to connect with one or more women like this for various flavors of love.

    Thank you, Vonn, for making the best decision you could have made in the circumstances.

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