Street ethics, wrap
A couple of weeks ago I wrote a blog piece on the ethics of photographing people on the street without obtaining their permission. Within a week, the piece had become the third most viewed page on my site. I received comments on my blog, on my Flickr upload and in the form of private emails, from existing Flickr friends and even from people I hadn’t met before. In many cases, respondents described similar experiences they’d had; most of them had already reflected on the issues I’d raised and all of them affirmed that Street Photography has a legitimate role to play in the artistic pantheon.
Two key points emerged time and again in the responses I received. Firstly, the overwhelming consensus was that Street Photography is a valuable form of social documentary, largely covering aspects of daily life that might not otherwise be recorded (e.g. by the media). It is a form that has been around since the invention of the camera, practiced by some of the greatest photographers who have ever lived and enjoyed universally by people who like people. But due partly to innovations in technology and partly to fears about public safety and security, the world has grown suspicious of people pointing cameras at people they don’t know. Consequently, the second point that was stressed again and again in the responses to my blog piece was that Street Photographers should show respect to their subjects. The message was: if someone clearly doesn’t want to be photographed; don’t photograph them; don’t portray people in a way that ridicules them or would cause them embarrassment; and if someone objects to their photograph having been taken and asks for it to be deleted, delete it (which is rather more difficult if you happen to be shooting with film); and finally, obey the law or the rules governing the use of private property.
I think that enough has been said on the subject for the moment so my purpose here is not to go over old ground but to explore one question I raised in the previous piece but glossed over without giving it much attention. I put it to myself that if Street Photography was posing such an ethical dilemma for me, why not simply turn to other forms of photography?
Why Street Photography?
From time to time I do shoot other subjects but the fact of the matter is that I prefer Street Photography because people fascinate me. People have lives and lives have stories and even though I may not know what is happening in the lives of the people that I pass in the street, I can guess, I can invent and I can create something on the basis of that invention. But for me, there is more to Street Photography than that.
Street Photography for me is exciting; not because of the potential to run foul of the law or of angry subjects; but because, when I set out on a shooting expedition, I never know what I will find or what I will catch. I might come back with the best shot I have ever taken; or I might come back with nothing. I rarely set out with a specific plan. At most, if I am working on a series, I might have a notion that I need a shot with reflections, or a shot with shadows; but I never have a specific place, or time in mind, much less a specific shot in mind. It is all left to chance.
The Mind’s Eye
The key to my approach to Street Photography is preparation (as opposed to planning). I need to be in the mood for the expedition to be successful. When the incident with the security guard occurred a couple of weeks ago, at the beginning of my shooting session, my confidence was shaken for the rest of the day and that showed up in the results of my shooting. Seven days later, when embarked upon my weekly shoot, encouraged by all the positive comments and support I’d received from Flickr friends, I still set out with some residual trepidation.
My preparation starts off by taking the bus to the city (usually). I like taking the bus because it gives me an opportunity to tune my mind’s eye. I have two eyes that see the same things that everyone else sees and in much the same way. But I believe that people who work in the visual arts have a third eye which sees things, not as they are but as one imagines them to be. They can look at a scene with their regular eyes and see their completed artwork with their mind’s eye. So, when I’m on the bus, I start to look at things with my mind’s eye. At this stage, my camera is still in its bag.
The first thing I try to tune in to is the light. I try to see things in terms of grades of light and shade. I look at the direction of the light, it’s brightness and it’s intensity. I look at what it is doing to the subjects it illuminates and allow that information to suggest how they might be photographed. But my camera is still in its bag.
Where I get off the bus is purely an arbitrary decision. Last week, I descended on the outskirts of the city center. Perhaps that was because I wanted to be as far away from the site of the incident with the security guard as possible. I don’t know.
Once on the ground, I usually walk around for a while to absorb the feeling of the city on that particular occasion. At this time, my camera is still in my bag but I am ready to start whenever something attracts my attention. When that happens, my day begins.
This was one of the first shots I took that day. I came upon the street by chance and liked the high vantage point I had and the way the sunlight was bouncing off the roadway. I waited for something to happen and eventually, the young man with his plastic shopping bags came along and crossed the street in front of me. The sun seemed to illuminate the plastic and I took the shot. Later, I considered converting it to black and white but the green car seemed to add to the story so I left it in colour, which incidentally, is authentic – not tinted in any way.
Sometimes, when I happen upon a scene, a narrative immediately pops into my head. On other occasions, I have a feeling that the scene is worth photographing but don’t quite know why and the narrative comes to me later, when I see the edited print. And there are times when a location has potential, the narrative is clear but the circumstances I need to tell the story visually never eventuate. On those occasions, one simply has to say, too bad; and walk away in search of new hunting grounds. On this occasion, however, the narrative was unambiguous to me from the start.
In Australia, we are encouraged to use reusable bags to carry our groceries home from the supermarket instead of plastic ones because of the damage the latter does to the environment. The slogan is “Say no to plastic”. The problem is that local councils, which have the job of taking way your household garbage, insist that food waste be wrapped in bin liners that are plastic. In the past, we would recycle our plastic grocery bags as bin liners but now, you go to the supermarket with your green, reusable bags (which cost about $2 each) and have to BUY plastic bags to put your food waste in. The result is that the environment is no better off, the consumer is worse off and the supermarket has two additional sources of revenue: green bags and plastic bags; so people continue to use the plastic shopping bags as bin liners. It’s about time we got serious about this issue and worked together to solve it instead of playing opportunistic games to make more money at the expense of the environment!
When I had exhausted the potential of that street, I headed towards the city center. On the way, I walked through Hyde Park. I took some shots of workers cleaning the reflecting pool, located in front of the War Memorial, then of silhouetted figures walking towards the Archibald Fountain. Then something nice happened. A young woman approached me and asked me if I would take a picture of her in front of the fountain (using her own camera). It was a tricky shot, because the light was coming from behind the fountain, throwing her face into shadow, but we moved around and took a few different shots and hopefully she was satisfied with the results. It turned out that she was a student, from Korea.
Although I prefer not to be interrupted while I am shooting, for fear of the mood being broken, the encounter had been a very pleasant one and shortly after it, I took this shot, looking back up the central avenue of the park.
I wandered around the park and took some more shots that I might upload to Flickr one day then I started to feel hungry so I headed into the city to find something to eat. In fact, I headed for the same Shopping Complex where I had been accosted by the security guard a week earlier; but I did not go there to provoke an incident and by the time I reached The Centre, my camera was securely back in its bag.
Having bought some take-away food, I went outside to the street to eat it and watch the people going past. That was when I spotted the young woman with the ponytail, handing out samples of perfume on slips of paper. The sun was shining from the far end of the street and so the side of her I saw was always in shadow; but when she turned in profile to me, the sunlight perfectly described the outline of her face and shone brightly through the ponytail. She was standing not ten metres from where the incident with the security guard had taken place a week earlier but the more I looked at her, the more I had to have that shot. Besides, I was on a public street and according to a very detailed interpretation of the laws as they apply to Street Photography in Australia, sent to me by a photographer who had read my blog piece on ethics, I was well within my rights to take it. I finished my food, praying that she wouldn’t leave the scene, then walked away in the opposite direction, took my camera out, set the controls, removed the lens cap, turned and walked back towards her. I took a shot of a couple arguing as a practice effort; then continued on my way towards the perfume seller. As I approached, her head was turned slightly towards me. I stopped, took a shot, she turned in perfect profile, I took another shot, then walked away, knowing that I had the shot I wanted.
When I’d posted this shot, crazycrazy commented: “Beautiful. I bet it was fun watching that one unfold whilst editing!”
Yes it was. This is an example of what I mean by the mind’s eye. What I saw with my regular eyes that day was a young woman, with an attractive profile and a lovely ponytail, in colour, with the sunlight striking her in such a way that there was a bright rim of light around her face, the main part of which was in shadow but with her features still clearly discernable. What my mind’s eye saw, however, was what I uploaded to Flickr. In an earlier essay, I made a distinction between the narrative and pictorial elements of a photograph. This is an example of an image that is purely pictorial.
All the world’s a stage
At the end of my expedition that day, I found myself down by the Opera House. Amongst the many street entertainers assembled there, was a young man with a magic ball; but what attracted me to that scene was a young woman, who was watching the performance, with a very distinctive stance. I tried several ways to photograph her and the entertainer together but the background was confusing and in trying to capture both subjects at once, it was clear that the image would lack a clear focal point.
To begin with, I turned to the entertainer. The light was behind him, shining through the ball, making it shine beautifully but throwing his face into deep shadow. I tried a number of angles and the one I settled on I liked because of the way the light accentuated the graceful lines of his arms:
Then there was the girl. Although I had taken a wider shot of both her and the entertainer, I opted for a crop that focussed on the position of her feet and showed only the shadow of the entertainer. This was a case where the narrative only emerged once the editing process had been completed.
In her comment, NonGenius wrote: “I’ve been looking at it, and looking at it – this is truly art! Very thought provoking. Been wondering if the woman is walking away after a tiff, or is the person behind holding a rifle at her…… it’s pure genius!”
In another essay, I spoke about the distinction I make between reportage photography (e.g. photojournalism) and photography as art. In the former, the facts are sacrosanct and the photographer, in my opinion, has no right to alter or distort them, even though he or she might be expressing a subjective point of view. Truth at all times is what I expect. But where photography is being used to create art, then fiction is fine by me.
In his play, As you like it, William Shakespeare wrote: All the world’s a stage. And all the men and women merely players.”
In this image, I used a street entertainer and a member of his audience (or, more precisely, the shadow of one and a fragment of the other), to tell a completely different story. The woman is tapping her foot impatiently; while the man is reaching out, pleading with her. But she is defiant, adamantly standing her ground, refusing to capitulate. Nothing whatsoever to do with the reality but a much better story, I think. If you look closely at the man’s shadow, you can even see the magic ball rolling down his arm! And this is what the shot looked like before the crop. I’ll let you be the judge.
One of the aspects of narrative Street Photography I enjoy most is hearing how other people interpret the images I upload to Flickr. Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy to receive any comments at all, no matter what they are; but where an interpretation is offered, often it is quite different from my own. People see things that I didn’t see, often because I am influenced by information that is only available to me because I was there, at the scene; while they must draw their conclusions purely from what is in the image and from the title I have given it. And because the subjects of the images are usually people and people are so complex, the opportunity to draw different conclusions is immense. That, again, is what makes Street Photography so fascinating to me. So I’d be really interested to hear your interpretation of today’s upload, provided that I haven’t just destroyed the illusion for you.
So where do things stand with XpatScot the Street Photographer now? You can probably gather from my uploads since the incident with the security guard that I am still a little apprehensive. Most of the time, my subjects are barely, if at all, recognizable. I’m shooting from father away, into the sun, cropping out heads and reducing to low-key to conceal their identity; although I did not set out consciously to do that. But my enthusiasm for Street Photography hasn’t waned. I still enjoy that rush of adrenalin when I see a strong image in my mind’s eye and feel compelled to capture it, or when a narrative forms in my head and I am able to realise it photographically. I still like to lose myself in the rhythms of the city and seek ways to interpret them. I still love the feeling of going out on a shooting expedition not knowing what (treasures) I will find; whether it will be productive. And I love reviewing my haul at the end of the day and reliving the moments of capture.
So let me finish with a true story that happened about 3 months ago.
It was the day I decided that if I were going to make any impact on Flickr I’d have to go out and shoot some new stuff. Eventually, I spotted a young woman in a rather large hat, sitting on a wall reading a book. Those of you who have known me for a while may remember her:
I took more than a dozen shots of her from different angles; and of her doing different things like adjusting her glasses or turning a page in her book; until she became conscious of me and looked in my direction. I thought I was going to be in trouble but straightaway she smiled and gave me a wave; then she hopped down from the wall and came over to talk to me.
It turned out that she and her friends were doing a performance piece, pretending to have a picnic in the center of the city. She asked me if I’d like to join them; I agreed; and a minute later, I was sitting on a picnic rug, playing cards with them. When we’d finished, we said our goodbyes and I left, feeling totally elated. The first shot I took after that (Lunchtime Rush) was the first shot of mine that made it into Flickr’s Explore daily 500; and a couple of days later, The Reader found its way onto Explore too.
So, if there is a lesson to be learned here, it is that we have to take the risks with the rewards, the successes with the disappointments and the criticism with the praise because, at the end of the day, Street Photography is legitimate… and it’s damn good fun into the bargain!!!