Photo by bongo
As I so often am, I've been impressed by the quality of the responses to the "Street Models" post—in fact I've held off uploading some newer posts because I didn't want to kill the conversation too early.
I thought I'd present four of the comments to highlight them a little more than if I merely added them to the bottom of the post. (I've edited them somewhat, too, as I would if they were editorial submissions.) They're only loosely responsive to each other, and they don't add up to a single argument, but I thought the points the four commenters were making were thoughtful and intriguing—as were the things many other commenters had to say, too. As I usually do with comments, I've used the blog "handles" the commenters themselves chose to use, which in some cases might be their real names. Thanks to bongo, Jeff Hohner, TR Smith, and Steve Jacob.
Opinions about street photography are varied and sometimes volatile; it's a bit of a hot topic. People have strong beliefs about their own ethics and practices, which is no doubt as it should be. Read accordingly. —Ed.
bongo: Once you ask someone for permission, or pay them, they are posing—they are doing the thing they do when they are in front of a camera. It's not street photography in the traditional sense. It's like taking pictures at the zoo and calling it wildlife photography.
Photo by Jeff Hohner
Jeff Hohner: I agree with bongo (and probably others). Street photography proper is a very specific thing. It should not be confused with "street shooting," the topic of Kirk Tuck's article. Kirk's tips are good but most don't apply to those wishing to practice traditional "Street." For that form, candid shooting is essential, as bongo explained.
While I try to respect the "social contract" Kirk mentions, I shoot first, and address the subject's reaction, if any, later.
I shoot in my home town. I shoot with standard and wide lenses to capture scenes of people, not portraits of them. I try to capture something that's happening, an event that involves one or more people. Their surroundings provide context to the document and richer compositional elements to the photograph.
My goal is to make strong photographs that capture people being themselves in the here and now, so that future people will have pictures of our era to enjoy the way we enjoy looking at photos from past eras. Street photography is a form of documentary photography (with all its issues and more) that takes as its subject society and human nature. Widens it right out. As such, it's one of the grandest, most open-ended projects possible and one of the most baffling to people. "How can taking pictures of things so ordinary be important, and important enough to risk offending people?"
Usually, though, I find people get it. On the rare occassion when a nod of acknowledgement or smile of gratitude doesn't reassure a cranky subject, a quick explanation usually does. I tell people I'm taking pictures of the street, of life in the city, and they readily understand that they're part of that, in the middle of it, along with me and my camera.
Sorry to go on, but I feel strongly about the importance of street photography especially at this point in history. There's a chance that the shape of things will change dramatically in the next 50 years because of people's reluctance to address global climate change. Pictures of how we lived in the early years of this century will become even more important if so.
Photo by TR Smith
TR Smith: I have done a great deal of candid street photography in New York City the past couple of years. I always use a wide lens, and always get close to the subject. I never ask permission because I am not interested in taking posed portraits. I want to capture people as they are when they are un-self-conscious and reacting only to their environment—not to the camera. People very seldom realize I am taking their photograph because I don’t telegraph it with my movements. Sometimes a bystander sees what is going on (I don't conceal the camera in any way), and occasionally I am asked what I'm doing. I'm generally happy to explain. I carry 4x6 prints, and a postcard of a gallery exhibit where one of my photos won first place. I often get quite enthusiastic while explaining, and almost always notice their interest fall as my enthusiasm rises—photos of ordinary people doing ordinary things just don't engage most curiosity seekers. I've had security and police question me, and they were always satisfied with the explanation. For every person who seemed upset there have been at least an equal number who wished me well. Occasionally someone sees me and jumps in front of me saying, "Take my picture! Take my picture!" More than once this has been a homeless person.
I think that "social contracts," and citations of moral and ethical restraints are a lot of hooey. I've even seen lists of so-called unspoken rules for street photographers. Your restraints are a reflection of your views, mine are mine. I am aware that the potential for misunderstanding is probably greatest when taking photographs of children, so I probably do that the least, but sometimes I can't resist.
I think of my endeavor as essentially a journalistic one, but not for any contemporary journal. My imagined audience is viewers a hundred, two hundred years from now who are looking for a sense of what it was to be here, now, where I am, where we are. From that perspective many of the most interesting images would likely come from breaking commonplace social conventions, and going where people do not often go, looking where people do not often look. In my case that consists of paying attention to things that we generally pass by without looking at closely. Things forbidden us by the quickness of the moment, and the social constraint against looking. That said, I always follow the restrictions of the law, and do not stalk my subjects. I also avoid celebrities—they're done to death. My personal ethos holds that people who peek out from behind trees with long lenses are gutless wimps, but that's OK because that long lens probably isn't likely to give them a very satisfying shot.
Photo by Steve Jacob
Steve Jacob: I agree with Jeff Hohner, but I think his level of engagement (and probably that of most TOP readers, who are an exceptionally civilised lot) is fine. You are still being respectful, however informally.
But the truth is that some photographers are pushing people way past their comfort zone and causing the rest of us problems.
Some people are simpleminded enough to think that the so called "right" to shoot in public (something of a misnomer) gives them carte blanche to shoot people whether they like it or not and to get quite obnoxious "in defence of their rights."
This is a misunderstanding of the situation and the law.
What the law implies (U.K. and U.S.) is that people cannot object on privacy grounds to having their photo taken in public, but that does not preclude them objecting on the grounds of aggressive harrassment, obstruction, or stalking, if such occurs in the taking of said photo.
In other words the behaviour of the photographer is significant and there is a "line." Because that line is hard to define it's hard to prosecute because the burden of proof is on the victim and without witnesses or proof of intent, it's hard to win. The police, knowing this, rarely intervene.
However many city administrations across the world (not just New York) are looking to draft legislation which addresses this in response to public concern, specifically with regard to stalking children. Like it or not, it is becoming a problem facilitated by digital photography (no longer have to rely on a "friend" at the drug store).
Legislation is a blunt instrument. It will mean innocent photographers will end up in court having to defend themselves and the whole practice may end up being associated with stalking, which will not be good for anyone's image.
I believe we, as a group, need to take action to distance ourselves from this type of behaviour. A public discussion will show, hopefully, that photographers are sensitive to such concerns and that most of us are nice, thoughtful, decent people (if a tad eccentric and geeky) but that what most of us are trying to do is simply make interesting images.
[posted by] Mike
(Photos used with permission)
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Kirk: "Kirk is right and Bongo is right. When I write I don't mean to create rigid rules that must be followed like traffic laws I mean to convey the spirit with which we should approach our subjects.
"If anyone looks at my own website they will find a collection of shots that were both direct and candid. But the spirit is the same. My only complaint about the whole debate is how darn literal many people can be. But I just chalk it up to being a poor writer. I must not have explained what I meant clearly enough.
"Tacit approval. Go with the flow. A spirit of collaboration. None of these things are at odds with the practice of street photography.
"Wonderful to have a conversation like this instead of devolving into another round of technical chat."
Featured Comment by Ryan: "While Kirk's article offered a nice set of guidelines for photogs to avoid offending any would-be subjects, these nifty sunglasses will ward off any would-be street photographers who may not necessarily subscribe to the same set of standards: