FOTOFORUM: On Fear and Photography

We’d like to extend the notion of an online photographic community with another new column we’re calling “FotoForum.” For the first column, the topic is “On Fear and Photography,” and we’re featuring four photographers and their responses to our question below. We hope to add the column monthly, depending on the kind of response we get from all of you.  And if you’d like to, please feel free to leave your response to this month’s question in the comment section at the end of this posting, along with a link to your website.––Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb

What’s frightened or disturbed or unsettled you in the past photographically, and how did you manage to resolve this so that it ended up changing your work in some way, perhaps even enriching it? For instance, this could be something about photographing in a culture very different from your own, or perhaps something a little closer to home, such as confronting a more personal fear or demon.


John Trotter. My clothes from the attack, July 1999.

John Trotter. My clothes from the attack, July 1999.


Three months after I’d been nearly beaten to death by a half dozen young men, a detective showed me some of the photographic evidence of my attack.  In one of the photographs, I was lying shirtless on a hospital gurney, an oxygen mask strapped to my face, with blood oozing out of wounds all over my head. Though I remembered an old green Chevy Impala stopping and an angry man exploding towards me on the sidewalk (I was photographing for the Sacramento Bee newspaper at the time), after that first blow to my face, almost everything else was lost to me.

My attack had resulted in a severe head injury, and a cognitive fog had settled heavily over my world for three months. At Sierra Gates, a brain injury rehabilitation residence, slowly I had to learn how to walk again and, most frustrating, how to remember and make sense of my experiences.  Amazingly though, because of the blank space in my memory, the extreme violence of my assault was an abstraction to me until I saw the detective’s photographs of my assault.

And that’s when the fear began to settle in. The angry man I’d remembered, a gang member, was being held for a murder he’d allegedly committed later that same week, but my other five or so assailants were walking free because the many witnesses to my attack were too terrified to talk to the police. Having been beaten severely for being a photographer, I was deeply afraid to photograph in public again.

Six months after my release from Sierra Gates, however, I decided to return there to photograph other people with brain injuries. Looking back, I think it was partly because I felt safe there, the first place I’d remembered with any clarity my new, brain injured life. It was like learning to be a photographer all over again.––John Trotter 

Annette Nordstrom, Marrakesh, 2009.

Annette Nordstrom, Marrakesh, 2009.


This past week was the first time I’d ever photographed in Morocco.  I spent my first day trying to decide how to approach this culture, which is very different than my native Scandanavia (I was born in Finland, and now live in Norway). I decided to try something different from anything I’d ever done before in my work as a professional photographer.  The thought came to me:  Who exactly is the woman beneath the hijab?  And isn’t she, ultimately, not that different than me?  So I decided to wear a traditional costume, and to take self portraits in the streets of Marrakesh, often using a cable release.  I thought I was going to feel somehow diminished as a woman and a person. What surprised me the most is that I was treated with such respect that I felt beautiful, both inside and out. –Annette Nordstrom

Annette is in the process of building a website.



Miah Nate Johnson

Miah Nate Johnson



Miah Nate Johnson. From my notebooks.

Miah Nate Johnson. From my notebooks.




One of the hardest things is to set out on a new path, new thoughts, new vision.  During a workshop at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown with the Webbs last summer, I laid down a photographic essay very reluctantly.  It was about depression, which is sometimes called the “black dog,” a malady very hard to reveal publicly, since this work is not only the expression of others’ sufferings, but my own as well. I was nervous.  I had softer stories in my box, but this one kept nagging at me.

After a week of editing, the “Black Dog” series –– a mix of my photographs and my drawings  –– the work seemed to speak more directly and more clearly.  At the final exhibition, I was surprised and very humbled by the response.  Some people cried.  Some people thanked me.  It made me realize I was not alone. I still search out this mysterious road with its many pains and turns.––Miah Nate Johnson

John Masters. Macedonian shepherd.

John Masters. Macedonian shepherd.


The work of others intimidates me until I remember that I am not supposed to be taking their photographs––only my own.––John Masters




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6 Responses to “FOTOFORUM: On Fear and Photography”

  1. ewa zebrowski Says:

    i was very moved by annette nordstorm’s comments and photo.
    i wanted to see more!
    i can undersatnd her level of discomfort about women in the arab culture.
    what a courageous and creative solution she found in becoming
    part of the picture, part of the landscape.

    ewa zebrowski

  2. cathy scholl Says:

    My response to your question is similar to John Masters.

    I feel this is a wonderful time to be a “young” (not necessarily pertaining to age) photographer because there is an explosion of photography to see and learn from in blogs, online magazines and so forth.

    However when I see most of the (often trendy) work that is getting recognition these days it has nothing to do with what I am interested in. Rather than invalidating my own work because I am not doing what “they” are doing, I have become stronger in knowing who I am and what I want to say as a photographer regardless of what anyone else does.

  3. Animesh Ray Says:

    I do suffer from the usual fear of shooting “in your face” type street shots of perfect strangers in a Western country, especially of women and children, but I think my greatest fear is that I might never be able to transcend my own quagmire of mediocrity.

  4. Bob Parker Says:

    I’m not sure it was a fear that was overcome, or what feelings that I contended with. I am not even sure if what I say below accurately captures what I am meaning to say, but here it goes. I made a decision about 6 years ago when my mother was still alive that I wanted to take some photographs of her. (I was moved by a photo essay by Eugene Richard about his aging father in The Fat Baby.) This was about 3 years after my father died at age 90, yet I had been in denial for a number of years about my parents’ aging and growing frailty. Following my father’s death, I began to see my mother, who was in her 80’s and who was always a strong-willed person, grow increasingly depressed and physically weak. Her body was shrinking, and her mind and emotions grew more fragile. I was making more frequent trips from Seattle to New York to see her, and help my brothers in some of the caretaking. I recall a week-long trip, when I had to take her to the emergency room only 2 hours after I arrived. She spent the next several days in the hospital and I visited every day. I hadn’t planned it in advance, but I brought my camera with me to the hospital and photographed her during various aspects of her stay and discharge. After the first few times bringing the viewfinder to my eye (which was quite uncomfortable), the photographing began to feel natural. I realize as I look back on photographing her during that period of vulnerability, it contributed to a shift in my own relationship with her, and the way I saw her. By looking through the viewfinder, I saw her as a distinct person, something that was not always easy for me to do. I also got a greater appreciation of the extent to which she had been failing. I think the camera gave me some needed distance to see her in a more individual light. Having those photographs helps to keep me in touch with number of personal and family related issues, helps provide some perspective on my life and my own aging. Since that time, my interest in photographing people has increased considerably, and I try to search more for those moments that attempt to capture what I think people are feeling and what is happening in a given situation.

  5. Carolina Arantes Says:

    I’ve passed something close to what happened to Annette, but it didn’t occurred to me such a creative solution.
    I was in Doha, Qatar, and I went to the fish market. The markets are always places very vivid to take pictures and, as people are very integrated on what they are doing, some times it helps on making pictures with personages acting naturally. But this time I arrived and there were almost men at this fish market, and the entire market stopped working when I entered on it. I was wearing proper clothes for the country life stile but not covering my head. I felt myself very strange, as I was committing something very wrong and at the same time felling myself observed as an exotic animal. I wanted to enter that place, to register that ambiance, but I could not. I came back to my cousin’s home and I invited my cousin to come back with me. With him I felt myself more comfortable and I could photograph while he was talking to the fishermen.
    This experience made me felt how hard is to women to enter some places, some realities.
    Although by these times now I fell that my biggest fear is to start, to chose some theme to photograph.

  6. John Masters Says:

    There is no one who sees what I see. This is not an ego thing, merely a point of fact. What I hope to do is learn from those who have been down this similar path(mentors), not concern myself with what others may “think of me” (none of my business anyway), and keep on taking pictures. From within my own bubble it is difficult to see the progression, but from the outside there is a definite story arc of which I am an integral part. In mathematical terms, I am the common denominator in my equation.

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