30 March 2008

Photo-ethics on the street

This started life as a comment in a discussion forum but, like the Rary bird, outgrew itself. So, I've decided to post it here instead.

The forum thread can be found here...


...and all quotations are taken from it; I urge you to go there and read it, since much of this will only make full sense if you know the context.

It was kicked off by a post by Nacho Cordova, who had posted in his blog an essay on the ethical philosophy of 'street photography' (take a look around his blog, while you are there) and wanted "to open it up to add to a conversation about how we conceive of street, reportage, documentary, [photojournalism], etc."

Having read through the other posts there ... I'd say that most of them have good points (not always related to Nacho's), but miss an important one. Michael Wakslicht, though I don't agree with much that he writes, is the only one who directly makes reference to it, but it's the part of his post which is not picked up by anyone else. He says:

"I know of a homeless woman in NYC. She always tells photographers to go away and shields her face. I went into a photo gallery in lower Manhattan NYC. There she was on the wall, trying to shield her face."

The central point, for me, is about respect. Mutual respect. Put aside legal issues, which are a red herring (in this context; I am as vociferous as anyone in my support the legal right to freely take photographs in public places). When I photograph someone else, there are two human beings involved. I do (despite Mike Dixon's assertion that "there's no privacy for me to invade") have a human social obligation to ensure that respect exists on both sides.

Most often, as Mike Dixon says, the transaction occurs easily, without breach of that respect on either side. (I, too, have spent much of my life on documentary photography of strangers, often involuntary on the subjects' part, in street and other contexts.) That is fine, and in that 99·9% of cases I see no problem or cause for criticism. But there are occasions when it goes wrong. Michael Wakslicht's example of the homeless woman is one such occasion. That woman's privacy is placed at the mercy of the photographer, and the photographer has abused the resulting access.

Once it has gone wrong, the photographer is the one who has to examine her/his own conscience. The photographer initiated the contact, not the subject - so if the subject objects, then only the photographer can put right the mistake. In the example above, putting it right would probably (I don't know the details, so can't say definitely) have involved not exhibiting.

Respect has to start with the way we look at the street, before we ever touch the camera, before we even go out of the door in the morning. It has to continue through every step, through the moment of exposure, through our responsibilities in whatever the aftermath of that moment might be, through decisions on and consequences of subsequent usage of the resulting image.

Does this mean I have to declare myself every time I take a street photograph? No - but if I make an exposure without the awareness of the subject (as I very often do) then all of the responsibility for respectful decision making is mine - and so is the responsibility if I get it wrong.

Does this mean that I must never capture, or use, an image which shows my subject in a bad light, or intrudes into their privacy? No, but I must be very sure in my own mind that there is a good reason for doing either of those things, beyond my own desire to have and show the picture.

I have exhibited pictures of the homeless. I have, ethical decision making being what it is, probably made wrong decisions in the process. But I have never made a decision to knowingly exhibit an image of a person who objected to the making of it unless I had (in my own mind, however mistaken) come to a thought through decision that there was a moral and ethical reason to do so which over rode a default decision not to. (An example: an image in which residents abused a homeless elderly man passing down their street. They, not he, all objected to my capturing the incident. I put it up on display in a nearby exhibition space for what seemed, to me, good reasons - but was not able to find him, and perhaps he would have preferred that I did not show it. I have to acknowledge, and live with, the fact that I may have been in the wrong.)

If the respect is there, we are legitimate. If it's not, we are abusive voyeurs. If we're not sure, the ethical onus is on us to think through what we do.

As a last word: I very much agree with Don E, who says "My standard for reportage is Smith's Minamata."

W Eugene Smith made the Minemata series of images with the agreement and coöperation of the mercury pollution victims, for the most part, though without the coöperation or agreement of the vested interests causing the pollution - who put him in hospital as a result. Smith was, in my book, a model of what the concerned and ethical photographer should be.

Thanks to Nacho Cordova for the impetus.