The Ethics of Photographing Strangers
This article first appeared in Black & White Photography Magazine Issue 201, April 2017
Walker Evans hid a camera in the lapels of his coat as he rode the New York City subway between 1936 and 1941. As he travelled he took pictures at an intimate distance of those unsuspecting people he shared a carriage with. These pictures were published under the title ‘Many are Called’ and it has become a classic of urban social documentary. To our (21st century) eyes the pictures of people dressed in hats and the standard elegant formality of another era purveys a soulful, somewhat sad image of another time. But was it justifiable for Evans to travel amongst his fellow men and women stealing souls as he went? Is there a balance between such an invasion and the artistic and documentary values of the project?
Your own answer to these questions will depend on your attitude to what is or what is not in permissible or decent. But this column is not concerned with the ethics pertaining to the exposure of the rich and famous and what protection they are due from the prying eyes of the ‘red tops’. Here we are concerned with the ethics regarding the relationship between the photographer and those innocents caught in the viewfinder of so many photographers working on so many projects.
The law in the UK and US is clear – if you find yourself in a public space you are fair game for any passing photographer. French law (ironically France being the birthplace of so many great photographers of humanity) has decided to stringently restrict the photography of strangers in public spaces. Indeed Brassaï himself would now be a criminal should he still haunt the cafes and alleys of Montmatre.
But despite the enlightened protection that photographers have in the UK an insidious de facto self-regulation is creeping in. For the first time there is a sense of ‘acceptance’ that we photographers should no longer enjoy total impunity. The days of shooting who we like, where we like and when we like are over. And, strangely, it is we who have made that judgement against ourselves. This new tendency to self-restrict started in the 1990’s with the paedophile witch hunts that did so much to damage the trust we placed in the relationships between adults and children. Not long after this came the enhanced threat of terror where anyone looking suspicious or curious was labeled as a potential terrorist. And then came the great ‘phone hacking’ trials of recent years in which the entire nature of privacy has been examined in the light of gross invasions of privacy perpetrated against many people from all walks of life. No wonder there is a new self consciousness amongst photographers.
As a result of all these massive public upheavals we photographers have learned to be ‘discrete’. We are now sensitive about our relationship with the public and we have taken on board many of the criticisms that were justly aimed at guilty practitioners as if we are all somehow complicit in the same crime. We have collectively learned a lesson we should never have been taught yet we are acting as if we bare some responsibility for the actions of others. We don’t. The law is on our side and we should exercise our artistic freedom in accordance with the law and the confidence that, as social documenters and artists we are performing a highly valuable service to our fellow citizens who read our books and visit our exhibitions and to future historians who will find the details and attitudes displayed in our photographs fascinating and valuable.
A photographer who is working to tell a story – or even a photographer in search of a story – is not a criminal yet so many who I speak to tell me about the restrictions they place on their own work. Often I hear that this new, self-hampered approach is not borne out of anything so contentious as a brush with the law or an uncomfortable encounter with a member of the public but is imposed incase such situations might occur. Speaking personally I have resisted becoming attuned to the heightened sensitivity of the public to photographers and often felt my shoulder tapped by the police or a ‘concerned’ person worried that I might be infringing on some belief of our sanctified right to privacy. I go about my work with the confidence that comes from doing ‘work’ and protect myself with charm and a press card. The rights of the serious photographer do not need to be balanced against the rights of the public – it is not a ‘zero sum game’. If the prevailing mood results in less social documenting we all loose out. Nobody wins.
Walt Whitman wrote “I do not doubt but the majesty and beauty of the world are latent in any iota of the world.” As photographers we have to ask ourselves if we are merely objectifying the world around us rather than discovering and helping in the manifestation of the world’s ‘latent majesty and beauty’ or in showing its worst excesses and prosecutions. We must not self-police ourselves according to the ignorant prejudice of others rather we must work in accordance with our own ethical code. Whether Walker Evans had a right to photograph his fellow subway commuters depends on how well the glass of his hidden lens reflected a sense of humanity that we can still see ourselves in.
Next issue I will be discussing Sontag’s maxim that ‘you need a camera to show patterns.’