Opting Out of Photo Ops

by Dorty Nowak

Paris, where I’ve lived part-time for years, is one of the most photographed cities in the world, and justly so. Its ubiquitous gardens, colorful street scenes, and magnificent monuments inspire photographers, amateur and professional alike.

For as long as I can remember, tourists bristling with camera packs and zoom lenses have clicked away, blocking sidewalks and views for others.  With the advent of smart phones, everyone has a candid camera in his or her pocket.  The popularity of the “selfie” means it’s no longer necessary to flag down someone to take your photo in front of the Eiffel Tower. I’ve seen visitors to the Louvre or the Musée d’Orsay walk through an exhibit, taking a photo of each painting.  While I prefer just to look, they won’t be disappointed, as I have been, when there isn’t a postcard of their favorite painting in the gift shop.

When I look at the photos I took of the street market near my home, colors, smells, and stories flood back.  That stall piled high with red and green ribbed rhubarb?  I remember carefully selecting stalks to make a tart, only to have an elderly French lady about half my size grab them out of my hand and toss them back.  Without a word, she then took my hand and guided me to another stall where she selected a new batch and handed them to me saying “Ces-ci sont meilleures.”  Whether they were better or not I’ll never know, but the memory makes me smile.

Having lived in Paris for over a decade, and with countless opportunities to capture images of my life here, I should have hundreds, if not thousands of photos.

But I don’t.  It’s not for lack of a camera. I have a Nikon SLR, which I usually forget to take with me, and an iPhone, which I can never seem to find in my purse.  Maybe I’m just not good at multitasking, but I’m usually too busy looking to think of taking a picture.  I have regrets about this, particularly when friends and family ask to see photos of my life in Paris. Or when I can remember only that I went on a fabulous trip to Marseille fifteen years ago, but nothing about the town, nor the faces of the friendly couple in the Loire Valley who let me stay on their goat farm.

Parisians still buy their daily baguettes from the corner boulangerie, as they have for hundreds of years, tucking them under an arm or in a basket for the trip home.  It’s an iconic image.  A few weeks ago I turned a corner and saw a woman walking in front of me with two baguettes sticking out of the back collar of her coat.  From behind she looked like a doughy alien.  A few minutes later I walked into the Metro station in time to see another woman drop her bag of groceries on the platform and begin beating it – with a baguette.  I wish I’d had the presence of mind to take photos of both.  On the other hand, the woman who’d lost more that her groceries might have seen me snapping a picture of her and taken after me with her baguette.  

Which brings up another issue.  It’s one thing to take pictures of monuments, gardens, and cute Parisian dogs.  People are another matter.  An artist friend and I were riding the Metro one day when we saw two young women standing near us.  My friend’s gaze was drawn to one, who looked exactly like Botticelli’s “Venus.”  I told her my friend wanted to paint her, and could I take a picture?  She said yes, and I took several.  As I put my camera away, I noticed the hurt expression on her companion’s face.  How easy it would have been for me to take pictures of both girls, and I regret my thoughtlessness.

I only have a few photos of French children, mainly the offspring of friends.  I would love to have pictures of the little boys shepherding their sailboats with long sticks about the large pond in the Luxembourg Gardens, or the laughing faces of the little ones charmed by the Guignol puppet theatre, a popular feature of the Luxembourg Gardens since 1933. However, as I wouldn’t want a stranger taking pictures of my children, I refrain.

Almost daily a Facebook friend posts a picture of a fabulous meal eaten at a wonderful restaurant.  The French have mastered the art of food presentation, and as eating in Paris restaurants is one of my favorite activities, I have no lack of subject matter. However, such is the allure of the food that I’ve usually eaten most of it and destroyed the artistry on the plate before I remember to take a picture.  

When I think of the photos that I wish I had taken, it’s not only the images I was too slow or unskilled or hungry to capture, but also the subjects that have escaped my memory entirely; the people and events that have slipped into oblivion.  I love looking through my digital photo library, the few albums and far more numerous shoeboxes of fading photos. We live in a world that offers the technical means to easily document and illustrate the stories of our lives, and I am grateful for that. However, I am most thankful for my eyes, which unlike a camera, are always ready to capture the world, if fleetingly, for me.  


Dorty Nowak is a writer and artist living in Paris and Berkeley who writes frequently about the challenges and delights of multi-cultural living. 

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