It's a bit like a Zen koan. Photographs Not Taken: A Collection of Photographers' Essays is a book about the presence of absence. Not all of the 62 short essays are expressed so lyrically, but philosophical issues around an image-maker's responsibility to his or her subject accumulate throughout the book. The buttons on your camera and phone might feel different beneath your shutter finger after reading this.
Will Steacy, the book's editor, asked photographers to write briefly about the pictures they decided not to take, and why. The essays of Photographs Not Taken, published by Daylight Publishing, which is based in a new space in downtown Hillsborough, comprise a compelling look into a photographer's decision-making process, revealing it to be directed at least as much by ethics as aesthetics.
For Michael Itkoff, the co-founder of Daylight Publishing, that decisive instant—to shoot or not to shoot?—is worthy of deeper consideration.
"[The book] foregrounds the mindset of the photographer in the grips of that moment," Itkoff says. "Whether or not we pick up the camera or let that moment go. There are so many ethical pratfalls associated with that, with representation."
Some essays unpack the emotional baggage that accumulates across those moments. Elinor Carucci recalls how she struggled to take pictures after she had twins. "Every moment, I had to choose between photographing and mothering, and when I did choose photography, every photograph became a second of guilt, a second I neglected them," she writes. Instead, Carucci chooses to memorize with some regret the moments of which she would have liked to have a photograph.
Photojournalist and Oscar-nominated filmmaker Tim Hetherington, who was killed by mortar fire while covering the Libyan civil war in April 2011, wrote about the difficulties inherent in his role as witness to the inhumanities of armed conflict. He caught himself having no qualms about publishing a graphic image of executed Liberian rebels but hesitating to release an image of an American soldier shot in the head in Afghanistan. Thinking about the mothers of these soldiers coming upon his photographs, Hetherington writes: "Was I sensitive this time because the soldier wasn't a nameless African? Perhaps I had changed and realized that there should be limits on what is released into the public."
Hank Willis Thomas deals with trauma that hit even closer to home: His cousin Songha was murdered outside a Philadelphia nightclub in 2002. Since then, Thomas has memorialized Songha in photographs included in the 30 Americans show at the North Carolina Museum of Art last year as well as a stop-motion animated film in the Nasher Museum's simultaneous Building the Contemporary Collection.
Thomas couldn't bring himself to photograph his cousin in his casket. But as the casket was being lowered into the grave, Thomas suddenly realized that he'd never see his cousin again. He snapped five pictures of the casket and the mourners. Now he goes back and forth, heartbroken that he doesn't have an image of the last time he saw Songha, but also "relieved that I ... don't have the burden of an image of that weight."
Still other contributors simply missed the shot. Over a decade ago, Kaylynn Deveney saw a man briefly flocked by seagulls walking toward her along a busy road in West Belfast. The birds flew off before she could take a shot, but her ekphrastic retelling in essay form seems to assuage her regret.
"We miss more photographs than we take," Itkoff points out. "And that failed attempt to capture reality talks about the limits of representation. It really gets down to that essence, which is so profound and bittersweet."
The accumulation of absent photographs makes the ones we take mean something.
The Daylight project also began from an absence. After a 2002 summer internship with Annie Leibovitz during which he wrangled gear and set up makeup booths for shoots with Robert De Niro and Gwen Stefani, Itkoff knew he wanted to head elsewhere. "These shoots were hot-catered with DJs and champagne. The orchestration was amazing but so little was about that image," he recalls.
After a turn doing street photography around the world, Itkoff found himself drawn into the space between documentary and fine art photography. But that space wasn't particularly well defined, something he fleshed out once he met Daylight co-founder Taj Forer.
"Nine years ago, [we] were undergraduates at Sarah Lawrence College and were kind of frustrated with the lack of critical context for documentary photography, especially work that included emerging photographers along with established photographers," Itkoff says.
Daylight Magazine was born. Its first of nine print issues came out in 2004; multimedia releases were added three years later. Daylight Publishing began producing books in 2010, and Photographs Not Taken is its third title, following spectacular monographs of Alejandro Cartagena's images of suburban sprawl around Monterrey, Mexico, and Bruce Haley's look at former Soviet republics.
Upcoming titles gather the work of Kevin Kunishi and UNC-Chapel Hill art professor elin o'Hara slavick. And now, Daylight has a public space to celebrate those publications.
The Daylight Project Space occupies the back third of a pert little house on a side street in Hillsborough. Its pristine white work tables stand in contrast to the colorful craft boutiques that face the street. Itkoff and Forer hope to eventually expand it into a gallery space, a reading room and perhaps a classroom.
A step outside their door, a cozy lawn is nestled between the public library and the fire department building. It's ready-made for picnics or film viewing, and it's where they'll host their first public event, the family-friendly Backyard BBQ, this Friday, May 25. (Co-hosting the event is the Vittles documentary film collaborative, including several people associated with the Indy, which provides in-kind support.) Films will be projected out the window of the space onto an outdoor screen.
Then, for the Single Source Supper fundraiser on June 15, James Beard Award-nominated chef Aaron Vandemark of Panciuto in Hillsborough will prepare a menu featuring food from Chapel Hill's Eco Farm. Local beer and wine, live music and more projections round out the evening.
Itkoff and Forer can't wait to see people on their lawn. They hope that a community of like-minded photographers will coalesce around the Daylight Project Space. That would be something worthy of a photograph.
Clarification: The original version of this story referred imprecisely to the origin of Photographs Not Taken. Editor Will Steacy (rather than the publisher) approached the photographers for contributions.
This article appeared in print with the headline "The presence of absence."