I started at the first suggested stop on my tutor’s list of places to go for thoughts on the current state of photographic theory, The Ethics of Street Photography – Joerg Colberg 03/04/2013 (Conscientious Extended) about whether Garry Winogrand’s profession that he never asked permission to photograph people was ethically ok (Colberg felt that no, really it wasn’t) I then followed the link within it to:
Garry Winogrand’s Uneasy Eye – Caille Millner, 22/03/13 – a (fairly hostile) review in the San Francisco Chronicle of last year’s big exhibition of Winogrand’s Pictures at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art which was mainly concerned with analysis of how Winogrand related differently to men (showing them as active subjects) and women (passive, objectified) in his photographs. This in turn linked from a comment on the article, presumably written a bit after the review was first posted, to:
Garry Winogrand – Nonstop and Unedited – Marvin Heiferman – New York Times, Lens, 13/05/2013 – which is more concerned with the sheer number of photographs taken by Winograd, and his lack of interest in editing or selection. The article made links between Winogrand’s compulsive taking of pictures which he never got round to developing and the way many people now have vast archives of jpegs silting up on hard-drives, unedited and untagged.
There’s a lot of stuff contained in these three articles, and I think I’ll work through it bit by bit (and will link back to here in whatever I write), coming back to the way the perceived status of a pictures subject (male? female? rich? poor? young? old? etc) affects the picture the photographer takes (or doesn’t take, for that matter) and the way digital photography makes Winogrands of all of us (did I really take 76 pictures for exercise 2? yes – I did).
But now, as someone currently psych-ing myself up for exercise 3 (the public place, compositional sequence one), the question of permission and photographing strangers is of definite interest as is how to deal with the inevitable hostile question “Did you take my photograph?” (itself a sentence worth unpicking at length, but at a later date).
So, to return to a summary of Colberg’s position (link above): it isn’t enough for the question never to really cross your mind, and it isn’t enough to respond to someone questioning whether you can take a picture of them in a public space by (possibly angrily) countering that it’s perfectly legal, so I’ll do what I want and – damn it! – I’m an artist! either; rather, it might be more productive to try and foster an understanding of what you’re doing by explaining it to your hostile subject and then – if that doesn’t alter their objection to being photographed – delete the file from your memory card.
In principal at least, I agree with this. There are obvious problems with deleting a single shot or series of shots if you’re using film and there are certainly difficulties with trying to convince the more angry photographic objector that what you’re doing is not some foul, dark practice preying upon ordinary decent people, but the need to be able to explain what you’re doing strikes me as a good starting point for most activities that affect others.
Among the people I photographed for the panning and moving exercise, zooming on bikes past me as I sat on the towpath of the Lea Navigation, there were a couple who displayed some obvious dislike of being photographed (I managed to stop myself, before I did, seeing the reaction) and one man who swung back after I’d taken the picture and got confrontational with me. For him, the act of taking a photograph of him created confusion – “What did you do there?” – threat – “Are you going to delete that?” some spurious objection to my technique – “What are you doing moving the camera?’ – and anger at my motives.
I’d opened my mouth to start explaining – OCA, blah, exercise, blah, movement, blah; do you want to have a look? – but he swerved away again, nearly hitting another cyclist, and was gone. I’d have deleted the picture without a problem (although if it had been one of the better ones, I might have swithered a bit first and had a further go at persuasion), and would happily have tried explaining, but I got the feeling that he didn’t want an explanation and that his objection came from somewhere deeper in his sense of self, that had been offended by my taking a picture.
I’ll carry on taking photographs of people and I’ll carry on having an explanation of what I’m doing to hand. But I suspect that the ethical difficulty of (assumed or implied) consent with photographing strangers stems from something fairly deep-seated and not particularly susceptible to rational argument on either side (which is where the “F*** you – I’m an artist!” response comes in).
Mostly, I suspect, people hope that no one notices that they’re taking a picture; this is what makes the idea of taking a series of shots for Exercise 3, sorting out the composition as you move and so increasing the chances of being noticed, rather unsettling.