Let’s talk about injustice that is being committed, perpetuated and defended by photographers all over the world — myself included. I’ll show you how I’ve come to realize that the way we do street photography is putting the freedom to do all kinds of photography in peril and I’ve got one idea that may help save it.
Frustration leads to education
I’m now the lead photographer for a large university. Recently, I’ve attended seminars and read books specific to diversity, equity and inclusion in the pictures I make. I’ve learned more about the history and experiences of people of color and how my photography may further stereotypes and the marginalization of students of color.
Each time I leave the seminars, I feel frustrated. It’s like an itch that I can’t get rid of — no, it’s more like restless leg at night (if you have it you know what I mean). I feel frustrated that they just told me not to tokenize people and in the next sentence they tell me I have to represent the same people in my imagery. They haven’t told me how to do both — and I think it’s because we’re all trying to learn to do that well.
But the frustration pushed me toward more education on antiracism.
Inclusion is for everyone
Becoming an antiracist is a paradigm shift for me, and it has me considering everyone around me intentionally. Beyond racism, I also feel torn up about “using” all kinds of people.
We work hard to represent our campus’ diversity (20% nonwhite) honestly and equitably in our pictures. This new awareness not only has me considering how I can represent the diversity of skin colors on my campus but also all the other kinds of people. And there are a lot of different kinds of people.
LGBTQ is naturally on the list, but so are the neurodiverse (those whose brains work differently) and people with disabilities. It’s also got me thinking about everyone else.
We often get attractive people in our pictures, but does that even represent the student body? Is retouching pimples in marketing materials misrepresenting as well? I’m thinking about all this and more and trying to apply it to my work — and I will be for the rest of my life.
Now let’s see how this applies to street photography.
We love street photography
Street photography is the essence of the “decisive moment” and for a century it has sculpted the way we think about making pictures. Walking down the street, getting a feel for the city, looking for light and action, gesture and color, becoming O. Henry’s “Man About Town.”
I love it. I consider myself a generalist street photographer. Interesting light on architecture, blurry trains and busses, and reflections in puddles have all been my subjects, and it thrills me.
But people are the only subjects that really matter. I’ve found interesting compositions and waited for the right person to cross the street into my frame. Seeing someone coming, I’ve used a long lens to frame them in the city’s lines. And I’ve photographed people walking by with a wide lens to get lots of foreshortening and depth.
Personally, the scariest pictures I make on the street are the portraits. I approach people, strike up a conversation and ask them to be in a picture. These are my favorites because we both come away with an enjoyable memory. Or, often, I come away without a picture because they decline my invitation.
There’s a thrill in all the ways of making pictures on the street, and for people stuck in urban settings, it can be pure adventure.
Controversy in street photography
Not everyone sees the joy in street photography, though. There is some hot controversy around it. In the U.S., it is legal to photograph people in public places where there is no expectation of privacy. But that’s not the case in some countries and you can’t legally photograph a person without express permission.
American photographers cling to the right to photograph in public and on the street. Some artists make a living doing so, while others do it recreationally. The few bad apples out there shouldn’t be allowed to ruin it for the rest of us. Many of us discuss the situation and maybe think up ways to preserve the way things are so we can continue to make the art we love.
But preserving the way things are isn’t an option. Things are being changed by non-photographers, and unless we do something different, someone else will take our rights away.
Street photography is assault
Some photographers selfishly find a fix in street photography, like a drug, instead of finding joy in it. And some people who have been photographed have been assaulted to provide the fix.
On October 19, 2020, the New York Daily News published an article by Jean Son describing how she has been victimized by street photographers many times. Go read it. You need to read it.
You need to start to understand how it feels to be on the other side of the camera. Just like I’m trying to understand what it’s like to be someone other than a white man in America.
“Then, last December,” Son wrote, “I was in Chelsea with my mother, talking and laughing. A young man lifted his camera inches from my face.
“‘It’s not illegal,’ he said. ‘It’s art. Get away from me.’ He deleted my photo and walked away.”
I’ve heard that sentence before about legality and art and I’ve said to myself, “It’s not my style, but to each his own.”
However, as I think about art, I’m pretty sure this isn’t. Art can be a means to awaken the world to things that need to change, and it can change the world. As a photo, art can take a moment and multiply it a million times and become powerful. But I can’t see how art can literally take from one person to satisfy another, as the “artist” above seemed to think would happen when photographing Son.
I regret this picture
I’ve made exactly one photograph I regret. I was in Dubai many years ago when I sneakily took a photo of a woman walking by. She heard my camera and stopped me and demanded that I erase it, which I did. I had no defense for my action, and I realized that I had embarrassed my host immeasurably. I also negatively affected that woman’s day and negatively affected her impression of photographers and Americans for the rest of her life.
What’s more, I don’t even know what kind of legal recourse she could have chosen to pursue instead. I’m lucky to have only lost face that day. I’m deeply sorry that I used the art I cherish, and have built my life around, to violate that woman.
Art shouldn’t violate anyone
“Taking upskirt photos is a felony in New York,” Son continued, “But while it’s great that taking photos of specific body parts is considered a crime, any act of photographing someone in a degrading, violative way without her consent in public is wrong and the law should reflect that.
“New York can’t be a safe place for girls and women when any man can point a camera at us and walk away with our faces and our bodies in his files. We should set an example for the country and protect women against all nonconsensual, exploitative photography and videography.”
Maybe taking pictures SHOULD be illegal
As I mature, and as my daughter grows older, I’m beginning to understand what Son is talking about. She is working with legislators on an “image privacy task force that will address photography as a vehicle of gender-based violence in public places.”
The art you and I love so much is being described with words usually reserved for sex offenders. This hurts, but each time I read Son’s article I agree with her more.
The verb here is “take.” When you take pictures in this manner, you rob your subjects. If these people are worth your art, then they are also worth your respect.
I can’t reconcile that taking something from someone else to please yourself is art. Most people call that rape, and that’s the language Son used to describe her experiences.
The frustrating thing is, I don’t have an answer to make this better. I want to fight legislation to restrict street photography because I see that it’s a precedent that will lead to ever-tighter restrictions and more and more legislation. It will lead to a stranglehold on my art, even though I don’t do it this way.
At the same time, I absolutely believe assaulting people, violating and robbing them should be punished.
Consider your words
As is happening with me and my education on equity and inclusion, I hope this opens your eyes to see that something must be done before someone else does it against us.
Starting with the man in the mirror is a good first step. Why do I make the pictures I make? Am I taking when I do it? Is it using someone else to benefit me? Am I doing something I wouldn’t like done to me (or to my daughter)?
“You don’t take a photograph, you make it.” –Ansel Adams
Ansel Adams is famed for saying “make” instead of “take.” When I say, “make,” it reminds me that what I’m doing is a result of me and my subject together and it helps me respect and honor them. Changing your language is a step toward changing the world, and this one word may be a good place to start.
One more thing …
Thank you for reading. I’m working on equity and inclusion, so please take it all, including my word choice, in the spirit it is intended and help me to evolve.
I look forward to the discussion in the comments, but I’ll be doing my best not to let exclusive or unjust comments slide. I may call you out on it. I’m not mad at you, but I am pointing out a paradigm that can’t be perpetuated.
Above, I said that taking from someone else to please yourself could be called rape. That’s not correct. Rape has a very clear definition, and I don’t mean to diminish that definition by applying it to being photographed. I apologize for that.
However, I’m standing by “assault.” There are a few photographers, with videos on youtube of them working, that absolutely fit this description with some of their work. Here’s a definition from Cornell Law School:
“[Assault is] intentionally putting another person in reasonable apprehension of an imminent harmful or offensive contact. Physical injury is not required. “