« Random Excellence: Hendrik Kerstens | Main | Six Months Over Bristol »

Sunday, 04 January 2009


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Wonderful photo! Does success like this make you less shy for next time?

I think most photographers have the same feelings towards approaching strangers. I do for sure.

I don't really understand the ethics of this image. Based on my reading of the post, you intruded into a private space, and the men indicated clearly that they did _not_ want to be photographed.

Why is it OK that your desires trump theirs, without discussion?

Great photo!

So which is more morally correct. Stolen moments like this or even Bruce Gilden's, however bad they make someone look. Or, paying poor kids in remote areas for photos. And I ask this as a general question and in not in reference to John's work.

Thanks. That's my kind of story.

Congratulations on "going back"
I too struggle with missed street shots. Maybe it is more important to capture what is than to fear what might be.
Having said that, I still can't get my mind around street photography.

That's the way I feel every time I must photograph strangers at their real life.
Thanks fo sharing it!


Improbable wrote: "From the picture alone, it could be from a more documentary approach, in which you obtain some kind of consent from the people you're portraying. And I would have no problem with that. But that's not street."

I don't understand how asking permission (if just with a nod) means it is not "street". It's probably because I don't get the distinction between documentery and street. If there is one.

The reverse can happen too. Being the only white guy around in some of the places I travel, whole villages sometimes turn out so that they can have their picture with me. I don't know how long my celebrity status will last now that globalization has occurred, but I remember rural china in the early 80's... people would have been less excited if aliens had landed versus a lanky white dude with blond hair and green eyes walking through their village. I remember the kids running up and pulling on my hair to see if it was real or a wig... guess what, I didn't kick them to the curb or curse them out for my invasion of privacy like some of the non-photographers who commented on the Bruce Gilden piece. I'd feel my hair being pulled and turn around to 2-3 kids laughing and darting back down an alleyway. "OMG he's got blonde hair, and it's not a wig".

It's posts like this that make me think T.O.P is tops and glad it's at the top of my photo bookmarks. The photo and, equally, the story made me reflect on my own experiences and dilemmas about this sort of photography. Thank you John and thanks to all who commented.

The first question I would grapple with is what criteria make this a "good", or "successful" shot: Is it the exotic locale and people (to us viewing from afar)? is it the documentation aspect that motivated John? is it the, literally, up close and in-your-face framing?.... Do we have a repository of similar "street" or "Third World" images in the back of our minds and this fits perfectly in line with what has been acclaimed before from Bresson to Salgado - and so it gets automatically validated?

The second issue is more elusive: the context.
What if we saw this image in a book or show of John's other work on this subject? What if there was accompanying text elaborating the historical transition of the area - beyond the notes in this post?

Then, is it a different story if you are a western tourist who takes a chance intruding, safe in the immunity of your status, versus another westerner who may live and work and speak the language there (as John, or another professional shooter may have)? What if this was taken by a local photographer whose intrusion may have been equally unwanted?

Those are some of the questions buzzing around my head when I look at a very similar picture I took late one hot summer night on a dark street in Shanghai. I lifted that trusty rangefinder to my eye, held my breath for a twenty-fifth of a second, took one shot and kept on walking. It was a group of 4 men playing mahjong. I didn't technically intrude since this was truly "street" and there were no nasty looks (or I was quick enough not to provoke). But I was definitely a western tourist and didn't speak any of the local dialects and certainly had not asked for permission.

Looking back, I am so glad I took that picture seven years ago. Did I breach any ethical boundaries of photojournalism? Did I bring home any masterpiece for all my daring? I like the picture a lot, regardless. It's a slice of life rarely captured so undisturbed and I like the atmosphere of the place (this was not taken up close but rather loosely framed by the 35mm Summilux).

In retrospect I cherish a whole series of similar images I made in China. In another decade, I am sure I can put these together under the title of the "China that was". Yet, the motivation was not to record the local customs for posterity. It was rather a spontaneous reaction to a scene that looked both exotic and very familiar.

I have taken similar pictures on my trips to Greece and have this comparison in my head: Tourist vs local, exotic vs familiar, speaking the language vs clueless, intruding vs invited in. I was born there but haven't lived there for decades. So I carry on this internal comparison between Shanghai (and other "exotic" locales) and Athens.

I was very impressed to see in Gilden's work overseas (such as the gangs in Tokyo) that he had all the names down and was clearly invited in to shoot. It's one thing to be a New Yorker shooting the street on your own home turf and another to cross barriers of language and culture to get inside a situation. So, I have to ask myself - what does that bring to the images? What is important about shooting in-your-face but invited (or belonging) as opposed to uninvited?

On a recent trip to Athens I surreptitiously took a picture of a chestnut vendor (very common on the streets in the winter). He saw me and was very upset that I didn't ask his permission. He said he wouldn't mind being photographed but since I didn't ask first, he objected (probably too many tourists before me doing the same thing). Since I took that picture with a digital camera, I showed him the screen and proceeded to erase it. I was glad to speak the language and able to understand and respect his wishes.

Too bad though... I really liked that picture and it would have made a good record of perhaps a vanishing aspect of Athens.
Instead, it was the picture that vanished.

For every photograph "taken" aren't there scores left behind? And, would we have this discussion if John didn't have a second thought and go back to take this one?...


I don't think that's a lighter in the foot. Perhaps it is rolled bills.

I think belief in what you are doing can get you through many situations. Gilden has complete faith in what he's doing, he knows it has worth.

I'm sure that's what made you go back, John.

It was worth it.

John: This is a very good image that drew my eye straight into the scene, first to the cards (nice hand developing there) then up to the 1-eyed fellow in the background.

I'll not get involved in the ethical imbroglio. I stated my general opinion in the Bruce Gilden article. Whether or not that applies here...I just don't know.

But I would like to offer a counterpoint to an earlier comment made by Damon Schreiber: "...it shows context, tells a story..." . No, this photo neither shows context nor tells a story. These guys could be playing cards in a Brooklyn garage or a Hong Kong prison for all a viewer (sans John's backstory) knows. Nor does this image tell a story. Contrary to the tired romantic photographers hymn about photos telling stories, no photograph is capable of telling a story. Telling a story requires language. Photos can -suggest- a story, as this does. Photos can illustrate a story, as this does. But, again, John's the one telling the story with text.

Sorry, but this old "photos tell stories" chestnut is one of my hot buttons.

But, again, very nice image (and backstory) John.

Dave Kee: "I don't understand how asking permission (if just with a nod) means it is not "street". It's probably because I don't get the distinction between documentery and street. If there is one."

Of course there isn't a hard line between street and documentary. But I think there's a worthwhile distinction between shooting strangers who've never seen you until the second you snap them (with or without a nod), which is what most traditional street is about, and shooting people who've agreed to let you into their lives, which is what I meant by documentary.

yunfat: "I remember the kids running up and pulling on my hair to see if it was real or a wig... guess what, I didn't kick them to the curb or curse them out for my invasion of privacy "

Right, as a westerner you can not only invade others' privacy, but often have very little yourself. But it's not a symmetrical situation, you give up this privacy voluntarily by deciding to visit these places. When you're tired of it you can go home.

Carry two cameras....80-200 for the unnoticed shot of your subject so you have "something" of your subject/scene. Then approach with the normal/wide on the other camera...The situation goes from a street shot to "environmental portrait" or documentary shot. Like when hunting Deer...stalk..aim...shoot...but if that white tail goes up you're too late...At least with people you can approach them and ask if you can use their picture and even get a release signed...if so inclined....but that's another subject.

I'm not sure about this.

Isn't this the equivalent of sticking your camera through an open door or window in somebody's home?

I don't think that would fly very well in the west. Does the fact that it's a hut rather than a more substantial structure make a difference? Does the fact that they're unable to afford a more substantial structure make a difference?

Is the shot more important than giving the subjects the impression that foreigners with cameras are insensitive buffoons? Something like that can have far-reaching consequences.

I don't think I'd do it, great shot or not.

If I was out the front of a cafe chatting with some mates and then some tourist comes up to me asking if he/she could take a photo, I would say "OK". If he or she simply pointed a camera at me, took a photo, then walked off, then I would be pretty annoyed.

There's nothing wrong with documenting the moment with a camera, but I hope we as photographers don't forget to be respectful and courteous as well. I think we should also think about what we're going to do with that image - if we intrude on other people and take photos of them, how are they going to benefit? Or are we just trying to satisfy our own selfish desire for a pretty picture that we can show off to our friends or clients?

Whether or not you agree with the decision to take the shot, you've got to give him this much - it's one hell of a photograph. The selective focus, depth of field, light, crop, the expressions captured - wonderful.

I think a lot of potentially great images are being missed because discussions like this put doubt in photographers' minds.

It's a great shot. Without the story it appears to be taken from a pov clearly visible from the roadside - no ethical problems with that. Hey, if I left my windows clear for all to see into my house (as is common here in NL), I'd reckon that'd be fair game, too.

Also strongly agree with Ken T's point on pictures & stories. I always maintain that a picture is worth a thousand more words, but they are always in addition to actual language.

There certainly seems to be a lot of angst around the subject of photographing in public these days. Here's my take on it - in a hundred years we're all dead. The person who took the photo, the people in the photo & even the outraged guy on the Internet who wanted to do physical harm to the photographer. All gone. All that's left is a photo that may have documented someone's existence.
What if they'd had cameras in ancient Rome, or Europe in the middle ages? Wouldn't it be fascinating to see street shots taken of everyday people by everyday people? Wouldn't it be funny to think of that guy 1,000 years ago being offended by having his photo taken?
That's how I see it; the absurdity of little egos jumping up & down, saying "I'm important, I'm important!".

Kent: "Isn't this the equivalent of sticking your camera through an open door or window in somebody's home?"

Well, the whole concept of private vs. public space is very different in a place like Cambodia compared to the West. This was an open-sided hut in a busy market area along the waterfront. There are places I don't go and shots I don't take. This one felt borderline, which I guess is why I posted it.

Dave: "Does success like this make you less shy for next time?"

It's funny, 25+ years shooting strangers in SE Asia and I'm still like the actor who always gets butterflies before he goes on stage. Fortunately once the "performance" starts I'm OK.

Am I allowed to state my opinion? Personally I think it's a crappy snapshot. Poorly taken in a hurry so as to avoid any option of disagreement. Having lived and shot in SE Asia for 6 years I think this kind of "stick your nose in and shoot" type of shooting gives us all a bad name. It may appear that in Asia people have a different idea of privacy, as they are so often exposed when poor, but having talked to people about that here it's just quite unacceptable to stick into someones place and shoot. Sure, they won't say anything because the custom here is to not make a fuss, but my guess is under their breath they're commenting the equivalent of "stupid tourists". Doing this is no different to walking up to your neighbhor's house and shooting in the kitchen window. And what's more it's not even the kind of shot I'd bother keeping.

And I'm so with Ken Tanaka about the tendency for photographers to think every picture tells a story. Really? Looking at this photo without the text what does it tell you? Guys playing cards. Two are half cutoff the other out of focus. Does that add to the story? Everything else you make up yourself and having been several times in a group like this while they playing cards (in Issan) I just don't see what else your imagination has to do with what these guys were thinking at that moment.

I actually don't like being negative about someone else's work. I just feel the need to balance the acclaim this shot seems to elicit because frankly I just don't get it. Stop the bandwagon, I want off.

Did the photographer capture a moment of significance? I don't think so but he does.

Photography is a personal matter and our diverse interests hopefully will document all of life.

Should you take a photo when it is not wanted, of course not. If it was an important image which needed to show something to the public at large then it can be considered differently but 3 men playing cards is not an overriding topic.

If anyone likes photo back stories I have put up a few.http://www.flickr.com/photos/nipeoplephotos/collections/72157603911739298/
The one about cuba was an uncomfortable experience but probably not a bad thing. http://www.flickr.com/photos/nipeoplephotos/sets/72157604123528958/

If anyone wants to see more of the cuba shots they are in the travel folder. I guess they are far from being street photos but I hope they tell a bit of a story.

"you bunch of exotic looking strangers...". I would probably be pissed off too if you took my picture under such conditions. I'm pretty sure you're quite exotic to them and they don't go around documenting your life. The camera is like the bars of a zoo cage. But who's on the outside and who's the monkey?

John "... shooting strangers in SE Asia and I'm still like the actor who always gets butterflies before he goes on stage."

That's a statement that gets my fullest sympathies. Not to lose the feeling for the subject's situation, balancing it with the wish for a picture, considering the other side, pondering options, all that probably does not lead to a big number of superficially 'wow' shots, but keeps the equilibrium of the photographer.

"Personally I think it's a crappy snapshot."

I'd like to know what you would consider a great snapshot, if that isn't.

Mike J.

@ Ken

Sorry, but this old "photos tell stories" chestnut is one of my hot buttons.

Me too Ken.

I can't count the # of times I have had this conversation with other photographers online.

I don't go for tag lines but I have wanted to add to my posts on many forums that photos don't tell stories, people tell stories and sometimes use photographs as illustration.

Do race cars win car races?

The pic and story remind me of the best advice I ever received on street photography "never carry more than you can run with"

I used to do a lot of "street" when I lived in Dublin, not much now I live in the UK - not sure why, but perhaps partly due to the fact that every town seems to be a clone of every other. A unique sense of place seems hard to capture.

On shyness - I am a pretty shy person. I think this is one of the reasons I took up photography as a teenager - the camera was a great prop/disguise/excuse at parties. I've never had any problem approaching anyone/anything with a camera. Without a camera it is a different story!

On ethics - you can over think this. Anyone with an average sense of right and wrong knows when they have crossed the line. Without that sense, you shouldn't be out with a camera. You shouldn't be out period.

It is easy to comment on someone else's shot from a distance, but only the photographer can decide whether a given shot was in fact intrusive, or whether that intrusion was justified by the circumstances at that precise moment in time.



Wonderful John.

Such are the perils of the job, be it street or documentary. Clearly it is always easier when people expect to have photos taken but those rarely offer the finest expressions and often don't uncover the little things quite as well.

I can't help but think "what if?" Meaning what if you snapped that first pic? Some days it comes naturally and you never hesitate. Other days you see a scene unfolding and something acts as a road block. Could be the subject, could be a bystander or sometimes it is just plain fear. Sometimes for the better, we do not shoot a certain picture out of respect or a feeling that this one should be passed on.

I'm a fan of your work and have been on your website a few times now. I'm curious to know if you are in SEA on assignment or just traveling?

Thanks for the rather honest story

>>>Am I allowed to state my opinion? Personally I think it's a crappy snapshot. Poorly taken in a hurry so as to avoid any option of disagreement. Having lived and shot in SE Asia for 6 years I think this kind of "stick your nose in and shoot" type of shooting gives us all a bad name.<<<

I did a double-take when reading Chris. S's comments because I think what he says is spot-on. And it reminds me that it's important to post negative reactions as well rather than always going along with all the "feel-good" blather that goes on on the web.

I live in Bangkok, where street photography is like "shooting fish in a barrel" because in most situations people genuinely don't mind having their pictures taken: the biggest problem, as long as you're not invading private spaces, is that people will ruin your pictures by doing a thumbs-up or a "V-sign". I've been working on book that is mainly street photography, called "Bangkok Hysteria©", from which the following is a picture that I like and am posting this link not to say that this is better than the picture being discussed but to show the type of picture that is easy to make on Bangkok Streets:


If you're interesed in seeing "Bangkok Hysteria©" project you can see it at the link below, but I must warn you that sitting through a flickr slde show of more than 300 pictures can be mind-numbing; therefore, if your interested drop me an e-mail and I'll send you the instructions for downloading an 82MB zip file with all the JPGs:



By JK: "Well, the whole concept of private vs. public space is very different in a place like Cambodia compared to the West."

Since I am a Westerner living in a non-Western society myself, I do understand this type of thing. But one lesson I've learned from close to 40 years of living in Asia is that it is a big mistake is to attempt to explain Eastern thinking on the basis of Western logic. Asian culture cannot be measured by a Western yardstick. In fact, it is possible (and quite common) to completely misunderstand an Asian response by analyzing it in a Western context, and vice versa.

There can be walls where an outsider perceives none, and a lack of the same where the outsider believes they should be.

For example, the assumption that "that person is smiling, therefore he/she must be pleased about what I am doing" can be totally, terribly wrong.

Doing the wrong thing in the wrong context in a culture that one doesn't fully understand can lead to deep-seated resentment and misunderstanding that can impact lives and relationships in ways that make "getting the shot" utterly insignificant.

Sorry for the lecture tone, but this is something I live with on a daily basis and I am personally affected by the impressions left by visitors who believe that whatever they do while here is over and done with once they leave.

It isn't.

Yes, the photograph is good, one that many of us would be pleased to make.
But at what cost to your own morals, more your conscience.
How many of us, years ago, would make that Ethnic shot, knowing that with a smile the ignorance would be forgiven, today the consequence is more likely to be extremely violent to both the ‘shooter’ and camera. Or how many super photographs of children are left on the street, because the photographer is appalled at the consequence, at best irate parents, at worst convince the law enforcement that you are just doing street or documentary. With more thought you can also, today, apply that to architectural shots, if you choose the wrong building and you are of the wrong appearance.
The artistic license of the painter doesn't apply to the photographer?
I don’t know if my conscience or trepidation would be greater, to make a shot like this I hope I would overcome both. Otherwise why do we carry a camera?

I just wanted to comment on the discussion of whether pictures can tell a story or whether this picture does.

While it may have been more accurate to say that this particular photo 'sets a scene', I've seen many other photos that I think I could safely say really do tell stories (to me at least). When I read written stories, my imagination fills in many details that I don't find in the text (for example, how things look). So by the same token, I think it's equally fair to use your imagination to interpret a story based on elements of a picture, and obviously some photos make for clearer interpretations than others.

Perhaps the stumbling block is whether a single moment in time is enough to qualify as a story, or does it depend a sequence of events. My feeling is that sometimes, there are enough visual clues in an image to construct a plausible sequence of events, and so, to me, that picture is telling a story. Outside the realm of photography, I think of Norman Rockwell as someone who build a career on constructing images that tell stories.

I've realized for a while now that I don't see eye-to-eye with most other photo-commenters on the web. Even looking at my own photos posted I find that people rate highly one's that I find borderline, and yet others that I like tremendously get little response. I used to have about 250 photos on pbase. I removed them because I got tired of not understanding what people see or don't see in them.
I don't have a special answer for what makes a great snapshot. I recall reading about Garry Winogrand and how he would say a photo "works" or not. For me this one doesn't. For everyone it's different - I may have overstepped myself. I'll just say that I'm only expressing my thoughts. I visited John Kennerdell's web site and browsed his photos and found many other shots that that appealed to me more. I find myself wanting to catalog how this one doesn't work for me but perhaps a better approach would be for others to explain in not-so-vague terms why it works for them. Do photographers in general have a giddy thing for poker?

As someone who frequently takes photographs of people in the street, subjects who are often unaware of what I am doing, I've come to the same conclusion that many others have: There are no easy answers. Whether to take the shot or not is a gut-level, intuitive decision that's usually made in a split second. Most of the time I feel that I've done the right thing; sometimes not. I try to learn as I go along.

I don't judge other photographers when they make their decisions. I don't know enough about them, or about the enormous complexity of the situation that confronted them, to make the moral evaluation.

Regardless, though, I'm curious that so many PHOTOGRAPHERS (who I assume are the principal readers of TOP) are so sensitive about having their photographs taken "without their consent" (to the point of threatening, if only half-seriously and on the internet, physical violence). Since we live in a diverse world, I'm obliged to take account of others' opinions when considering whether to take their picture. Some people think that taking their photograph steals their soul, or exploits their poverty, e.g. I don't agree with that, but I accept that others feel that way and try to balance it with other considerations.

But other PHOTOGRAPHERS? How can photographers be so circumscribed about the right to photograph? Surely photographers should be foremost among members of society in advancing the concept of the "freedom to photograph" as a right akin to the freedom of speech or expression (tip to A.D. Coleman). Photography, after all, is a mode or method of expression (whether a photo "tells a story" is something else altogether).

I can't say this to others, but maybe I can say it to other photographers: "Lighten up, I'm only taking a picture!"

"I'm curious to know if you are in SEA on assignment or just traveling?"

Hi Charlie -- Freelance living and working full-time in Asia since the mid-70s. I do a lot of my shooting with Thai and other local colleagues, so perhaps I've Gone Native.

I was just browsing Mitch's slideshow of Bangkok. His photos are just so right on, a wealth of honesty. They really capture what Bangkok is like. I want to post one in particular and say "yes, this is what I call a great snapshot". It's taken me ages to figure out a link for it. Curses on flickr! Here it is, maybe:


Bangkok is just so full of people and all the layers of people moving in this shot really does it. I really think his slideshow is worth a look.

It's an excellent shot. Candid monment, focus just right etc.

In terms of the ethics of the shot, well for me it's fairly straightforward. Even though the individuals are in a private space, if they have left their door open and, as a consequence can easily be seen from a public space, then morally I can't see the problem recording a scene that is on public view.

Wonderful post. This is something I have tried to understand as well. I imagine most people (even street photographers) value personal space and privacy. And yet, they often have to invade other people's space to make a strong image.

On the subject of documenting where you are and being apprehensive about making a photograph of a group of people was outstandingly well put. The brief words you shared give in-sight into what photographers think and feel while shooting in places like you did. The most socially outgoing person could even have a hard time making photographs in distant land. My personal thoughts on the subject are as follows, If I am in another Country, or a place I do not frequently shoot in than I do not hold back. I do not hold back on making photographs of people that may strike or catch my eye. Or that composition you know some day soon will no longer exist.

Great topic.

Jeffrey Byrnes

If this was a candid shot, surely they would have been unaware of the photographer ? This, to me, has become a "so what " picture that tells the story of the photographer and not the subject. The context and story is in the photographers actions, who built up the nerve to go back to a shot but probably missed what he first saw (familiar to us all), i.e. some locals absorbed in a card game. I don't like the fact that the men are aware of the camera: for them to be aware something more interesting should be taking place or an atmosphere captured - this atmosphere is one of go away we're playing cards, therefore, so what ?

First off, this is an engaging successful image. But from the picture alone, I really can't tell if it has been taken by an intruding stranger or an old friend.

The story of how this was taken is what is remarkable. I'm reminded of a phrase that goes, "taking a picture is primarily a hostile act." So then, how are we to "take" pictures of, or "shoot", strangers in a way that is not violent or demeaning? Especially as the final word always belongs to the photographer.

Here is my solution: Street photographers (all people for that matter) are always drawn to whatever has the most energy in a scene. You see something engaging, and you want a picture of it. My response is to become equally engaging. I want the subject to become just as interested in me, as I am in him or her.

Walk steadily and purposefully. Look at everything. Smile and make eye contact with people that look at you. Carry your camera in both hands at almost chest level. Be transparent. Essentially, become interesting. If someone is curious about what you are doing, they have given you permission to take their picture.

In response to your energy, people will come at you from all sides. You will never again be able to walk down a busy street, at home or abroad, without someone stepping towards you and opening the door for their photo to be taken. When you allow yourself to also become a spectacle the power imbalance is diminished, and photos are created that spring from genuine meeting.

Yes, I still try to capture the decisive moment, and yes I still walk away from scenes kicking myself for chickening out. But more and more often, I enjoy photographing moments that other people have invited me into because for some reason they were drawn to me. If a photographer wants to take photos of a way of life that will soon be gone, how much more would he enjoy being given the opportunity to enter that way of life with those people for a short time?


I like the shot. I think the guy being a bit upset adds to the drama.

A lot of the struggle would go away if you got one of those 90 degree mirrors on the end of your lens, like this:


I think I'll get one. Too many people notice too quickly when I point the big white tube at them.

The comments to this entry are closed.



Blog powered by Typepad
Member since 06/2007