There’s a woman who walks her dogs in the park when I walk mine every morning.
Hers are two friendly black and white spaniels with curiously bulbous foreheads.
Every time I see her — which is almost every day — the woman is glued to her phone, interrupting conversations only occasionally to throw balls for the dogs, scoop up their shit or issue instructions. Otherwise she’s unremarkable.
Or at least she was until an exchange we had a few weeks ago. I was looking for a photograph for the weekly photo challenge I run on Facebook. Each week, we set ourselves a theme and the idea is to capture an image on that theme and submit it for judging in the group.
Because it’s a weekly challenge and the shot must be taken during that week, there’s often a bit of a last-minute flurry as the deadline approaches.
On the morning I had my little run-in with spaniel woman I was fast approaching the deadline with nothing in the image bank. I can’t recall what the theme was that week but I do remember that I was struggling for inspiration. So I took my camera on the dog walk and hoped for the best.
It’s a proper camera, a full-frame DSLR with a chunky lens, which I mention not because I’m sad and need approval for my sophisticated taste in cameras (although that might well be true) but to concede that it’s not the most unobtrusive object in the world.
I was looking around for a shot and saw a faint possibility in the way the rising sun was peeking through a gap in some trees. So I raised the camera to my eye and briefly considered taking a shot, before deciding against it and walking on.
Then I noticed spaniel woman marching towards me with a furious expression on her face. “Did you just take my photograph?” she barked, eyes narrowed in suspicion. “No, just looking for a sunrise shot”, I said, flashing what I thought was a winning smile. She glared at me for a few moments, clearly not believing a word I’d said, before planting the phone back to her ear and striding off without another word.
You do get a bit of this sort of thing when you take photos in public — although people are hardly ever quite this brusque. And I do understand the discomfort some feel about having a camera pointed at them. Virtually everyone’s fine once you’ve explained what you’re up to.
But this woman was not fine at all. She felt justified in dispensing with all the usual social niceties because she felt wronged. That she might have been wrong to feel so wronged didn’t seem to register at all. She was rude and unpleasant.
Of course I have no idea what was going on in her life when this interaction took place. She could have been stressed or anxious or depressed or overwhelmed or desperate. On those interminable phone calls she could be fighting for her financial life, desperately reaching out to an estranged partner, or feeling out of her depth on corporate conference calls. I don’t know.
And because I don’t know, of course I should give her the benefit of the doubt. I should assume she’s a good person whose path I happened to cross at the wrong time.
When I think about it, that’s exactly what I do. But when I don’t think about it, I find myself bristling whenever I see her. I consider myself a reasonably evolved human being but I can’t help feeling this way. When her dogs approach me, I pat them without acknowledging their owner. Her appearance causes a little shiver of disapproval to run down my spine. It’s a mildly disproportionate reaction to her entirely disproportionate act.
Perhaps it’s because I feel unfairly judged. Perhaps it’s because being liked is more important to me than it should be. Perhaps her behaviour feels like a depressing manifestation of humanity’s apparently inexorable slide into barbarism. I don’t know.
What I do know is that, to coin a phrase, you reap what you sow. Treat people with suspicion and anger and they will reciprocate.
But these are fractious and divided times, maybe we should all be ready to take a risk and try being a bit nicer to one another. It’s easy being nice to nice people; maybe rather than moaning about spaniel woman I should be allaying her anti-photographer suspicions and making a new friend.
Great. This has now turned into an ethical challenge for me. How the hell did that happen?