Finding Vivian Maier: Exposing conflict like a street photographer

Street photographers have an eye for seeing reality from new perspectives. Just as film is exposed to light, street photographers can teach us how to expose our understanding to the reality of our conflicts. The documentary Finding Vivian Maier from John Maloof gives an inside look at a 20th century street photographer, Vivian, who was a full-time nanny. Ready with her Rolleiflex camera, Vivian would stroll throughout Chicago with the children under her care in tow. A Rolleiflex is a film camera for the street because it has a viewfinder on top, which lets you hang the camera from your neck and look down to take a picture. In other words, you don’t have to hold this type of camera up to your face. Because the camera is at waist level, a street photographer can trigger the shutter without being noticed. However, street photographers aren’t disengaged. Rather, they briefly enter into a street scene, take a picture in an unobtrusive way, and then walk away. This is what Vivian would do.

Joel Meyerowitz, a street photographer featured in the documentary, had this to say about street photography:

Street photographers tend to be gregarious in the sense that they can go out on the street and they’re comfortable being among people, but they’re also a funny mixture of solitaries at the same time as being gregarious. You observe and you embrace and you take in, but you stay back and you try to stay invisible.

In particular, Joel described Vivian’s photographic style in this way:

As [Vivian] was photographing, she was seeing just how close you can come into somebody’s space and make a picture of them. That tells me a lot about her. It tells me that she could go into a space with a total stranger and get them to accommodate her by being themselves and generate this kind of moment where two presences were actually kind of vibrating together. And then she’s gone.

He also stated about her pictures that:

Vivian’s work had those qualities of human understanding and warmth and playfulness. . . . I think her pictures show a tenderness, instant alertness to human tragedies, and those moments of generosity of sweetness. I see her as an incredibly watchful, observant, caring person. And probably why she was a nanny was that she had those capacities.

When it comes to conflict, it’s possible for us to learn to be watchful, observant, and caring. We can observe like a street photographer, but instead of shooting a picture, we can ask a question. A question can help you take a snapshot of your situation the way Vivian took snapshots of the people she saw on the street. You can ask a question to discover whether your perceptions are accurate, kind of like focusing a camera. Asking a question allows the other to clarify what was meant and provide an explanation, giving you a focused view into your situation.

To ask good questions, or to take good street photos, it helps to be in the present moment. In his book Getting to Yes with Yourself, William Ury describes embracing the present. He writes that we “can visit the past from time to time to learn from it and we can visit the future to plan and take necessary precautions, but we make our home in the only place where we can make positive change happen: in the present moment.” He goes on to say that it “is by being present and spotting the present opportunities in our negotiations that we can most easily get to yes with others.” Like having a flash on a camera, by being in the present moment, you will be able to see things that you might otherwise have missed, and ask questions that lead you to resolution.

Vivian was able to be in the present moment for her photography. As Joel Meyerowitz said, she took pictures with “an authentic eye and a real savvy about human nature.” You can do the same with your questions.


Image: “Rolleiflex” (CC BY 2.0) by Oreste Pantegani