I’ve been wrestling with a bit of a contradiction lately. On one hand, the proliferation of mobile phone cameras and social media has meant that there is no end to the number of throwaway images being generated and instantly shared online; on the other, it seems to be harder and harder for somebody with ‘serious’ looking equipment to take an image of anything without arousing suspicion. Is it just me, or is the world’s paranoia entirely misplaced?
Everybody takes photographs with their mobile phones. It is common to the point that nobody pays you any attention; in many ways, if you’re at a famous place or eating and you’re not using your phone, you’re the one standing out. It doesn’t attract suspicion in the slightest. On the other hand, bring out a tripod and a medium format camera in the same place – say a mall, landmark, or city thoroughfare – and you run a very good chance of being pounced upon by security or police. It’s happened to me many times, with increasing frequency in recent years.
I think there are several things going on here. One is a reaction to the increased terrorist events of our modern age; anybody with a camera may be performing target surveillance. However, if you’re going to blow something up, I doubt you’re going to bother trying to make large prints of it with a tripod and many kilograms of equipment: a mobile phone is far easier, more flexible, and more useful. Besides, think of the cost of the gear: that could be spent on explosives, instead. The reaction we’re observing is a failure of common sense: you really want more people observing and photographing landmarks and events, because that means more indirect surveillance and more evidence later – if something goes wrong.
The second thing is places protecting their intellectual property. This again is a misplaced concern: if I was working in marketing or PR for one of these places, I’d want as many images as possible to circulate to enhance mind-share of my attraction; better still, I’d want as many good images as possible. I’d actively encourage serious photographers, because they’re far more likely to produce good images than casual snapshooters. And I wouldn’t worry about intellectual property of images, either: if there are a huge number of images out there, nobody is going to be able to make any money off them. It’s nothing more than the simple economics of supply and demand.
Hell, I’d be going as far as possible to good images to be made and circulated: free wifi, interesting lighting of adequate brightness. I would make it difficult for people to take and circulate a bad image that might land up portraying my attraction or business in an ugly or bad way by checking sight lines and testing things out myself with the worst camera I can find used as sloppily as possible. It’s free indirect marketing by word of mouth; the very best kind – the kind that can’t be bought. I certainly wouldn’t be instructing my security guards to harass photographers on public property, as one major Malaysian conglomerate has been doing. That’s another marketing and common sense failure.
The overarching problem is one of ignorance (or education): a large camera has no correlation with purpose, ability, or image quality. A skilled photographer can make a saleable image with a camera phone. A poor one will make a crappy one with the best possible equipment. Making a judgement about the purpose of the photographer and the photograph is just going to land up wasting resources and shooting yourself in the foot with poor public relations. The reality is that there’s almost no money to be made from images of things or places anyway, and people who shoot for a living probably aren’t going to be making photographs of your establishment because a) you’re not paying them to do it; b) it’s work, and c) those images are of no value to anybody else.
There’s one final issue: one of perception and privacy. Photographing strangers (and especially children) is perhaps one of the stickiest issues in modern photography, to the point that some countries such as Hungary have passed – and actually enforce – strict laws about requiring permission even in public places. We are fascinated in a quasi-voyeuristic way when looking at the lives of others, frozen for an instant; but most of us we never want to be the subject. For most of the world, public places remain public and free grounds for photographing so long as you don’t harass or threaten somebody – what you do in public is going to be observed by people around you anyway; if you don’t want something seen, then don’t do it (or do it in private). I would have thought that was common sense. But it is also the duty of the photographer to respect their subjects – something which if breached might make for interesting images (think Bruce Gilden) but some extremely irate people. Is an image worth the confrontation? I don’t think so, personally, but then again everybody has their own values.
I was told by several people in the last few months that the Google Glass has apparently caused something of a controversy in the social establishments (bars, clubs etc.) in the United States: apparently, people are disturbed by the fact that their actions might be recorded – and made publicly viewable. These are probably the same people who freely post for selfies and then spend the rest of their evening sharing them across a dozen social networks, whose activities are monitored by dozens of security cameras that record and archive everything, and probably land up in unflattering positions in the backgrounds of other drunk people’s selfies which are shared across even more social networks.
Do you see a bit of a problem here? At least if you’re wearing a cyborg thing on the side of your face or using an enormous camera, you’re not being shy or covert about your actions: people have fair warning. Again, I’m not advocating invasion of personal space, voyeurism or making your subjects uncomfortable. Besides, if you’re in a bar or club, I’d imagine you’re probably not there for photography anyway. I’m increasingly doing street photography with a tripod and medium format for this reason; I can’t possibly hide what I’m doing, and if you don’t want to be part of it, you can always walk away. If you don’t care, continue as normal. And for my part, I need the tripod to achieve the blurred people and ambiguity from longer shutter speeds I’m aiming for anyway.
I don’t really have solutions for any of these issues beyond the obvious: be transparent about what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and what the results will be. This has always worked for me so far; I’ve been able to pretty much shoot wherever I want (within legal limits, and sometimes granted permission beyond) – with the exception of some areas with non-PR-savvy management. It’s their loss, anyway. I do feel though that it’s every photographer’s responsibility to observe these unwritten rules – it only takes one overpublicised bad incident to ruin it for everybody else. Sometimes I can’t help but feel things are at the tipping point one way or the other: either complete freedom, or a complete lockdown. In the meantime, we can only do our part and hope that the proliferation of cameras and images helps more people to see the light…MT
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