Photographing People

May 8, 2010 § Leave a comment

I have generally not been a photographer of people.  I may photograph aspects of people (limbs, shapes), but I’ve never been particularly focused on ‘people.’  This has fit in well with my feelings that people have a right not to be photographed.  However, I’ve occasionally encountered situations where I find myself interested in taking a whole person’s picture.  Why not?  I am interested in people, even if I do not generally take pictures of them.  The urban environment is a human environment, whether humans are in the frame or not.  I have in the past come home from a session around town and found a picture I’ve taken of a whole person that I have no problem with.  A different picture from the same session might make me feel uncomfortable.  Why?

These moments didn’t trouble me too greatly, as I do not generally focus on people in my subject matter.  But a few events last year made me think this is a subject of greater importance:

  1. Urban Encounters Symposium 2009 – During discussion about getting permission to photograph people in public places, a panel member describes how he employs a ‘non-verbal’ method that relies upon the subject seeing him with his camera and returning a gaze or gesture to indicate their consent to be photographed.
  2. I work in a theatre.  Two shows last autumn employed camera crews to document the production process.  They repeatedly attempted to film myself and other crew members backstage without consultation or even introduction.
  3. In a December 09 Greenwich LIP meeting, one participant stated “If you don’t want your picture taken, don’t go out in public.”

These three cases are examples of different approaches to the problem of photographing people.  The first case expresses interest in its subject’s consent, but employs a very open-ended approach.  The second case does not even acknowledge consent as an issue, it just takes the photos.  The third is aware of the issue, but completely rejects it as a concern.  Each of these provoked reactions in me for different reasons.

The issue of photographing people is not a new one.  I think many people have argued about it, either with others or themselves.  Most of the official discussion of the subject seems to be about legal issues of privacy and property which vary from country to country, or even city to city.  Other dominant threads seem to be concerned with photographing people while travelling (e.g. “How do I photograph this tribesman without offending him?”).

Given the Crossing Lines group’s placement within CUCR, which itself is in the Department of Sociology, I thought it might provide a good platform to discuss photographers’ thoughts.

For example, this is a photograph I took of a person which does not bother me:

This is a photograph I took which later made me feel uncomfortable:

Why?  Is the method I used to take the picture?  (The first was snapped from the bus while at a traffic light.  The second I took in a busy park. None of them saw me.)  Is it because in the first picture, the boy seems pretty anonymous, and becomes part of the surrounding details, while the second picture is all about them and what they are doing?

Would this picture have been better?

Ultimately I went with this photo of a different couple.  It worked better in the project I’m working on.  Maybe it is a question of purpose?

I think it’s important to move beyond legal arguments and apologetics.  What I find more interesting and perhaps more useful is an analysis of ethical and aesthetic issues, both historically and personally for individual photographers.  What do people feel is acceptable when photographing people on the street?  What various methods do we employ?  Can we understand those ‘grey areas’?  Society and photography have changed greatly in the last 100 years.  How has the way we photograph people changed?  Should it change?  Do we even need to photograph people anymore?

— Michael


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