Not to flog a dead horse, but I want to pick up from where the one of the earlier articles hinted and left off: the topic of ‘soul’ in street photography, and what that means in terms the increasingly grey ethical area for photographers. There are also legal implications involved, and we’ll discuss those in passing – individual territories have different regulations, so it’s really in your best interests to check before shooting.
Quick background: this photoessay supposedly lacks soul – both the images and the mark of the photographer – but images that are (loosely) more direct, intrusive, with technical considerations such as sharpness and exposure being secondary etc. have it. I’m not going to argue for my artistic/ aesthetic preferences or approach to the subject; I photograph the way I want and matching the way I see the world, and if that means I don’t have a soul – or at best a clinical one – so be it. They reflect the precise, logical part of my personality and the way I view modern life; people are turned into anonymous money-making robots, commodities and if anything, dehumanized when stuffed together in quantity. The most highly prized thing for individuals living in a huge metropolis is nothing other than solitude and space; we see it in the way people increasingly ignore each other when physical proximity increases – books, headphones and sunglasses create a barrier between them and the rest of the world. (Just look at your average subway carriage or airplane.)
But I digress. If the mark of soul is that slight intrusiveness into the life of another person for the purpose of producing an image, entertaining as it might be for the audience, I can’t help but feel that I’d feel slightly violated if I was the subject instead of the photographer. There’s nothing one can do about being seen in a public place – and if you don’t want to be seen, don’t go out – but to have a lens thrust into your personal space at close range can be rather uncomfortable. This is something which I can understand and respect; I suppose it’s one of the reasons I have personal resistance over directly confronting photography. If Bruce Gilden attempted to photograph me, he’d probably have to buy a new camera – after he saw a doctor. Oddly, I think it’s different if you’re there for the purposes of photographing an event; people there are expecting to be photographed, and one is not attempting to hide anything.
This is the reason you’ll see almost no upfront, quasi-voyeuristic images from me: either my subjects are aware they’re being photographed (a lot of the time, I’ll smile, wave and have a short conversation with them) – or shot from a distance and abstracted, to preserve anonymity. I’m very transparent about the way I shoot – I’ve stopped trying to be stealthy (not that it’s even possible with a Hasselblad) and instead am approaching subjects openly, or not at all. Most of the time, I’m not wanting to photograph a particular man, rather the idea of man, and man in context – if that makes sense. There’s also the stereotypical (but admittedly true) ‘Asian reserve’ which makes me very uncomfortable about direct confrontation.
Impersonality. I stood openly with the camera out in the same place for a good five minutes; anybody who didn’t want to be photographed avoided me (or perhaps ducked thinking they were spoiling the shot). In the end, it didn’t matter since that wasn’t the shot I wanted anyway; this was.
In the comments below the line on the original post, Tom Liles postured that the only way to really do street photography is either uber-stealth, completely unnoticeable – or be completely open about it. The most invasive kind of photography is the kind that either exploits subjects or attempts to invade their space stealthily but fails; the kind of thing where people use camera phones to photograph up girls’ skirts make just enough of an attempt to hide it resulting in looking suspicious. It’s just downright rude and creepy. I say this as a photographer: if you don’t have the decency to either respect others’ personal space by being completely invisible or totally open, then there’s something very wrong here: in effect, you’re attempting to capture the human by dehumanizing your subject and treating them as a commodity. Isn’t there something ethically wrong here?
There are of course laws against this kind of thing in most countries: you are forbidden from exploiting the image of an individual – this includes selling candid images commercially without permission, and anything sexually explicit or implicit. You wouldn’t want to find an identifiable picture of your rear end promoting adult diapers or a fetish club in another country, for instance. This is common sense, I think. The grey area comes with editorial and artistic use: at what point does it become the latter? And if it comes down to a legal battle, who makes the call? Who is even qualified to make the call? Though the art world loves controversy, I’m personally quite happy making antiseptic, anonymous images that don’t make me run the risk of getting sued. It’s just not worth it.
I can’t help but wonder if the slightly blurry, low-def approach to street photography is the result of an underlying urge to be confrontational but not quite having the confidence to pull it off, resulting in hurried, imprecise images. Or perhaps it’s the desire to give the audience the feeling that they’re sneaking a voyeuristic peek into the life of somebody else. It’s really impossible to say without knowing the motivations and methods of the photographer. I’m not sure I quite agree with this from an ethical standpoint, even if the results can be impressive. I think there’s nothing wrong with it if the subject is aware and therefore giving implicit approval or cooperation in the production of the image; but that would of course probably result in different images.
Street photography is always about people; whether that’s an individual – in the style of Vivian Maier, Bruce Gilden and co – or the idea of the individual/ person – in my style – that’s open to interpretation by the photographer. But ultimately, it all boils down to respect: it’s cliched, but do not do to somebody else that which you would not want done to you. Where that threshold lies is down to the individual, though there are laws to prevent you from going too far, and as a photographer and individual person, I support these: providing they are properly and knowledgeably enforced. If you can confidently say that if you were to be photographed in public by your identical clone in an identical manner to yourself and you wouldn’t mind, then I think you’re probably okay. I’m confident enough not to change the way I would work; I believe it respects the individual and produces the results I want. In fact, I’d probably start a conversation about his Hasselblad. MT
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