Sunday, April 18, 2021

To do or not to do

Walk on by, Madrid

Out of the shadows, Las Vegas, NM

Much has been written about the ethics of photographing the homeless and downtrodden souls we see on the street. Of late the chance of witnessing this kind of misery has grown exponentially. San Francisco is the poster child for the plight of homelessness and for our collective inability or unwillingness to deal with it. My examination of photographing those who are less fortunate was prompted by an essay in Medium back in February. It stuck with me. Then I was touched by the response that the top two photographs elicited on Instagram last week. You’ve seen them but the stories they tell are germane to the context of this post. 

The Medium article makes the case that these people are invisible to us and we perform a service when we shine a light on them. I’m not quite as sanguine but I'm chewing over that perspective. I worry this kind of photography may be maudlin and cheap tug at the heartstrings.

Center of inattention, San Miquel de Allende

Talking hands, San Francisco

Human conditions, San Miguel de Allende

One man band, San Miguel de Allende

In your face, Los Angeles

The thrust of much of the commentary about this fraught subject is that we must treat the human beings in our visual narratives with respect. Most of us try to avoid seeing these people. That’s painfully obvious in the top image. It makes the case that we either don’t see these human beings, or we will them to disappear. That’s why they are often described “unseen” or “forgotten.” They and their human condition warrant memorializing. Yet photographing the vulnerable among seems voyeuristic and an intrusion into their space. It is awkward and it does violate their privacy. But is it more of a violation than photographing a laughing family on a picnic?

The case can be made that any candid shot of a woman or man on the street is intrusive. But that it’s really taking advantage when the person is distressed, incapacitated and helpless. Candid street photography is worthy social commentary if it brings attention to a shameful situation. Is it also shameless?

Most of my street photography is of ordinary folks doing ordinary things, of everyday lives being lived. More than a few are lighthearted. Today I’m shining a light on subjects that I am almost embarrassed to have photographed.

In broader terms the street photographers fall into two camps, anonymous flies on the wall and those who engage the prospective subject and acquire permission. Some even pay for the intrusion. That’s been happening since the early 19th century when photographers had to hire their subjects because exposure times were so long. Engaging potential subjects is fine. It's a choice. Posing your model ala Diane Arbus is perfectly appropriate, too. Pay them if you must, but you’ll get a different, and I’d argue, a less real result than truly candid shot.

I am very much of the fly on wall persuasion. It’s best that the victim doesn’t know you’re there.

I recall being chased down Turk Street in San Francisco’s Tenderloin by a homeless couple yelling, “Get out of here, motherfucker. Give us some goddamn respect.” I turned my back and walked as fast as my little chicken legs could go.

I’ll tell you one thing. There could have been whole more street photographs in this post. Thank me for my discipline.


Blacks Crossing said...

Your street photography has always been compelling and prompts serious contemplation. I am so glad you addressed the subject in your blog today because it is something many photographers struggle with as well. How do you photograph a person living on the street without taking away their dignity or disturbing them? These have been and will continue to be questions good photographers ponder as they go about doing their jobs. I think about the 6 January riot on the Capitol and don't think that for a moment anyone in the group was even thinking about being photographed. Granted, a completely different situation. An interesting counter to that would have been a journalist photographing people living on the street in Washington, D. C. that same day and time. I have no answers, but on some level, all photography is history, and thank goodness Dorothea Lange had the vision, guts and equipment to take the heartbreaking photographs she did during the Depression Era. It is a reminder of what we should but sometimes refuse to see in this world. Thank you, Steve!

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