Category Archives: Head

The category, Head, is for posts that make us think.

Visual Hygiene

Last night, I went to a clinic in the suburbs for a sleep study. I rode the subway and got out at Leslie Station just before my 9 pm appointment. Leslie and Sheppard is one of those big suburban intersections where cars rule and pedestrians are an afterthought. My head was in a different space. I’d been reading a poetry journal and couldn’t make the switch to the more prosaic task of crossing the street. The light changed before I was halfway across and I had to run. My boots crunched on the salt. The road was slick and reflected the headlights beaming through the darkness.

This is my fourth sleep study, a followup to make sure everything is fine. My first—the one where I was diagnosed with sleep apnea—was 16 or 17 years ago. My current CPAP machine (which makes me look like one of those Giger-inspired creatures from Alien) is 11 years old and has logged more than 22,000 hours of use. I find that shocking. That’s 22,000 hours when I’ve failed to be a productive contributor to the global economy. Instead, I’ve spent time refreshing myself and dreaming. I’m so irresponsible.

I suffer a clinical loneliness during these studies. You sit in a cramped stark room while a technician daubs putty all over your head then sticks wires into the putty and tapes them in place. Then you have to lie back on the bed while the technician performs a series of baseline tests. “Blink ten times,” he says through the futzy intercom. He’s sitting at a computer terminal in another room and watching you through a camera hanging from the ceiling. “Cough three times. Point your left foot down, then flex it. Move your eyeballs up and down, up and down. Now side to side, side to side.”

The last time I did this, there was a man in the next room who snored like a tractor and when he wasn’t snoring he was buzzing the technician to help him unplug his wires so he could go for a pee. I had a miserable sleep and, the next morning, rode home on the subway like I’d been out all night on a bender. It could have been worse; I could have been him. The time before that, I met a girl who looked like Drew Barrymore. I stepped into the room while she was having wires stuck into the daubs of putty. She looked up at me, smiled, and fell asleep. She functioned like she was a hundred and three.

This morning, the technician opened the door and flipped the light switch. I raised an arm like I was defending myself against an assault. Once I’d adjusted to the light, I noticed, for the first time, a print of a painting that hung on the wall above my feet. It was the only adornment in an otherwise bare room. It was a “realistic” painting of a maritime scene: ocean, rocky shore, green grass above the rocks, lighthouse, rainbow, and bald eagles. The colours were gaudy. The horizon line cut straight through the middle of the scene. It was sentimental. It was kitschy. It was worse than the light switch. I raised an arm like I was defending myself against an assault.

It reminds me (of at least one of the reasons) why I spend so much time with a camera. I feel like King Canute declaring war against a rising tide of visual garbage.

Cycling in snow flurries

Cycling in snow flurries

There’s a phrase I learned, probably after my first sleep study when I went back to the clinic to get outfitted with a CPAP machine. The RT (respiratory therapist) spoke to me about sleep hygiene. I’ve always been a fan of the Buddha whose principal claim is that he wanted people to be awake. I think the Buddha was talking about a spiritual state, but he could have been speaking literally, too. You can meditate until your toes fall off, but it won’t amount to anything if you’re dozing with your head between your knees. So I practise sleep hygiene.

By analogy, I think there is visual hygiene. I have lofty aims. I want to SEE the world. I want to see in a way that isn’t distorted by my own situatedness in it. Or, at the very least, I want to see in a way that is aware of its distortions. But sometimes that seems an impossible task. Every day my eyes are assaulted by a barrage of images. Advertising. Facebook memes. Glossy magazine spreads. Instagram posts. Book covers. Traffic signs. Instructional manuals. Cheesy prints on clinic walls. I swim in their culture. I swallow their meanings. I become desensitized to visual garbage. I lose my ability to distinguish one thing from another.

Desensitization and the inability to distinguish modes of seeing are distinctively postmodern experiences. I don’t think we need to evaluate them. As experiences, they are neither good nor bad; they simply are. However, these experiences should alert us to the risk of overwhelm. Psychologically, we aren’t designed to cope with the barrage of imagery that screams for our attention, just as we aren’t designed to cope with perpetual wakefulness. We need time to tune out, turn off, recuperate.

My experience with a camera engages me in intense seeing, but it also shields me from the risk of overwhelm. The very fact that I can frame a scene gives me a measure of control over it. I can eliminate excess detail and focus attention. I can use depth of field, cropping, desaturation, black & white conversion, and mindful curation to accomplish the same thing. Using a camera also helps me to hone my visual literacy so I can reacquaint myself with the habit of distinguishing one thing from another. Finally, as a practical matter, whenever I’m looking through a viewfinder, I’m not staring at advertising, Facebook memes, cheesy prints on clinic walls.

I’d love to write more, but I had a horrible sleep last night and I need a nap.

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Ode To Spot

In the 6th season of Star Trek TNG there is an episode called “Schisms” in which Data delivers a poetry reading. While he recites an ode to his cat, Spot, listeners squirm in their seats.* Data has enough insight to recognize that his poetry makes people feel awkward, but not enough insight to understand why. After the poetry reading is over, Data coaxes Geordi La Forge to explain things to him. Data understands all the formal properties of a poem—metre, rhyme, stanzas, specific formats like sonnets and odes—but he hasn’t the slightest idea what a poem is for or what effect it’s supposed have on a listener. His intelligence is like the intelligence of a person with Asperger’s Syndrome—formal intelligence without emotional grounding.

Cat & Owner

I think a lot of photography (including a lot of my own) is the sort of photography Data might make if he ever decided to wander through the Enterprise with a Nikon D810 or a Canon 5DS slung around his neck. He would have a grasp of all the formal properties that contribute to a good photograph. He’d know all the “rules” about focus, depth of field, white balance, saturation and composition. And he’d have instant access to all the great photos shot by masters of the discipline. All of the hardware, rules, and historical knowledge would allow him to make technically correct images. But so what? Without more, those images would be the visual equivalent of his Ode To Spot.

In an age when it’s increasingly easy to make technically “perfect” images, it’s correspondingly easy to be complacent about whether or not those images do what images are supposed to do. Do our images merely allay anxieties around formal requirements? Or do they satisfy deeper needs? While the two are not mutually exclusive, there are many photographs that move us deeply even though they are deeply “flawed”. I think it would be an accomplishment to make even one such photograph.

A flawed photo.

A flawed photo.


*Felis Cattus, is your taxonomic nomenclature,
an endothermic quadruped, carnivorous by nature?
Your visual, olfactory and auditory senses
contribute to your hunting skills, and natural defenses.

I find myself intrigued by your subvocal oscillations,
a singular development of cat communications
that obviates your basic hedonistic predilection
for a rhythmic stroking of your fur, to demonstrate affection.

A tail is quite essential for your acrobatic talents;
you would not be so agile if you lacked its counterbalance.
And when not being utilized to aide in locomotion,
it often serves to illustrate the state of your emotion.

O Spot, the complex levels of behaviour you display
connote a fairly well-developed cognitive array.
And though you are not sentient, Spot, and do not comprehend,
I nonetheless consider you a true and valued friend.

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The Ugly Truth

The first time I visited Glasgow, it was to visit a friend who had settled in the nearby town of Kirkintilloch. He showed me the sights and I was happy to shoot whatever I saw. However, I sensed a certain — I’m not sure how to describe it — maybe embarrassment? — as my camera sometimes strayed from the more palatable tourist subjects (the Kelvingrove, Buchanan Street, Glasgow Cathedral) to the stuff you’d never see in a brochure (panhandlers outside the Lodging House Mission, graffiti in an alley off Sauchiehall St., empty liquor bottles on a street in Govan). I didn’t mean to embarrass, but with a camera in hand, I felt compelled to shoot what’s there, not what other people wish were there.

My friend’s response brought to mind something we all do: call it pride of place. We tend to tell narratives of the place we call home. Maybe because we need to believe that we have some mastery over our circumstances, that we have chosen where and how we live rather than submitting to forces beyond our control, we tell stories of our place that reassure us we have chosen well.

I have found myself doing the same thing as my friend visits me in Toronto. I show him the sanitized sights (the Eaton Centre, the U. of T. Campus, Yorkville, the ROM, Chinatown, Kensington Market) while pretending not to notice the man on the sidewalk outside the Waverly Hotel with a needle in his arm, or the police shaking down a shoplifter, or the (presumably) schizophrenic woman harassing strangers. Toronto is a wonderful city, I tell myself. Ignoring, for the time being, that I was born here and so never had a choice about living here for the first 18 years of my life, and, ignoring for the time being that, for the rest of my life, I have been too afraid to go anywhere else, I couldn’t have done better for myself. Truly, I am the … uh … master of my universe.


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Shooting Bicycles

Here are sample photos of people riding bicycles. Each is shot by a different method, each with a different result. I shot the first image with a fast shutter speed. Both cyclist and background are crisp.


I shot the second with a slower shutter speed (1/160) and moved the camera in sync with the cyclist as I released the shutter. There’s a certain amount of luck involved in doing this, but when it works, the cyclist appears crisp while the background is blurred. It’s possible to achieve the same effect with photo-editing software, but why bother if you can do it in camera.


You can use a slower shutter speed but hold the camera stationary. This produces the opposite effect. The background is crisp and the cyclist is blurred. I supposed it’s all a matter of emphasis: a blurred cyclist is fine when she’s incidental to the image.


Finally, an image where the cyclist is more obviously incidental. Both cyclist and background are blurred while something else altogether demands our attention.


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Blogging Photography – 1st Anniversary

Today marks the first anniversary of my first post on this blog. More than 200 posts later, I find myself in a reflective mood. Here are a few random (and eerily interrelated) observations which may be of use to fellow photographers, but more generally to anyone engaged in an artsy pursuit.

1. Discipline

The act of posting things on a regular basis gives a self-imposed discipline to your work. The world won’t come crashing down if you miss a self-imposed deadline, but missing it on a blog does provide a sense of public accountability. If you’re like me (i.e. a bit OCD), it will goad you to do more.

Reflection from polished granite, Avenue Road, Toronto

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Jonathan Miller’s Nowhere In Particular

I recently bought a used copy of a photo book, Nowhere In Particular, by a medical doctor/TV and theatre director/photographer named Jonathan Miller. It features photos of rooftops, corrugated sheet metal, bits of canvas, and (mostly) palimpsests of weathered posters and torn advertising. All the images are closely cropped (or presented as a series of progressive croppings) that make it impossible to discern anything about their context and (perhaps) their meaning. The images are accompanied by a fair amount of text. When I bought the book, I assumed the text would provide the otherwise missing context. At the very least, I expected the text to explain the author’s methods or motives. Given the title of the book, I assumed that he was engaged in a project similar to Pico Iyer’s The Global Soul which meditates upon the nowhereness of intentionally global spaces like hotels, airports, and chain restaurants. Closely cropped photos might reflect a similar sensibility.

If the accompanying text bears any relation to the photos, it’s a mysterious relation. One snippet is a quotation from Mansfield Park; another, a discussion of madness from Proust. Some are personal reflections on arcane concerns, like the question why chapter summaries in 19th century novels are written in the present tense while the chapters themselves are written in the past tense. The only discernible connection between the photographs and accompanying text is that they reveal the tastes and interests of a single mind, Johnathan Miller’s. There’s something unsettling about a book whose method appears to be disruption and incongruity. The fact that it appears as a book, with its plastic sheen and crisp corners, lends the enterprise a unity and authority it might not otherwise warrant. It’s a deception or, more likely, a game.


Turtle crossing the road.

Maybe the point of the game is to demonstrate that, when faced with a collection of incongruities, we can’t help but find relationships amongst the disparate parts, investing them with meaning. The discernment of meaning in chaos is a comfort in the same way that god is a comfort to the religious and Darwin is a comfort to the irreligious. Our spirits find solace in the conviction that at the heart of the universe is an unfathomable singularity and that at the heart of that unfathomable singularity is an indivisible kernel of reason. Then again, if the point of the game is that any point is possible, then one can’t very well privilege that point. It’s just as plausible that the point of the game is to demonstrate that what Ponce de Leon was really looking for in Florida was the recipe for Coca Cola, or that, since the deregulation of the bird market, inflationary pressures have made a bird in the hand worth three in the bush. Or maybe seeking a point is beside the point.

Maybe it would be more fruitful to ask why a book of incongruities makes me feel uncomfortable. I like my text to bear some relation to the photographs it captions. This is a reasonable thing for text to do. Text and context. That way, I know what I’m looking at. While Miller shot in film, digital photography has taken things a step further by embedding text (in the form of keywords) in the exif file. And if you post photographs online, you tag them so search engines can properly index them. If your photo of an upper east side mud wrestling competition is tagged #landscape #rural #farm #cow #holstein #patty, the farmer searching for images to decorate his marketing brochure is going to be sorely disappointed. I don’t write this to be flippant, but to illustrate one of the ways in which digital best practices contribute to visual literalism i.e. the belief that the subject of a photograph must bear a one-for-one correspondence to an object in the real world which allows the object to be readily described with a series of specially marked nouns and gerunds e.g. #cow #shitting.


Bunches of carrots at a vegetable stand.

Current photo technology furthers our susceptibility to visual literalism by practically guaranteeing that every shot makes the correspondence between subject and object obvious. Reinforced by literalism in other areas of endeavor—the polarizing effect of social media, the loss of nuance in public discourse, a widespread refusal to engage, or even acknowledge, difference—, what began as a simple observation about the current state of photography has been elevated to an aesthetic which enjoys not merely legitimacy but the force of moral necessity. The failure to make obvious sense is an affront to the sensibilities of decent right-thinking people.

Writing about the contemporary literary novel, the critic, James Wood, calls this aesthetic “commercial realism.” A confluence of trends has produced this aesthetic: the publishing house as subsidiary of the transnational media corporation, the global hegemony of the house style, the digitization and universal dissemination of text, the global ascendancy of rights-based copyright regimes, etc. Commercial realism has such a hold on our collective imagination and on our expectations about what counts as an aesthetic that we can hardly remember what preceded it. We forget that it’s a contingent blip on a wide arc whose trajectory is marked by a long series of other contingent blips.


The indefatigable spirit of the human heart.

What I have described as visual literalism could just as easily be called commercial realism, and for many of the same reasons that invite the term’s application to current literary practices. The same transnational media corporations manage our “visual ecology.” The global hegemony of the house style finds its correlate in the requirements of stock photography pools, modeling agencies, photo competitions, and the EULAs of large photo-sharing web sites. And digitization treats text and images indiscriminately, as do rights-based copyright regimes.

Visual literalism denigrates the metaphor. I use metaphor in its most general sense to indicate the radical leap between disparate thoughts. It’s the patterns of light and dark through a venetian blind that inspire a poem. It’s the image of a snake biting its own tail that prompts a scientific breakthrough. It’s epiphanic. It’s associative. It’s aleatory. It’s a jazz of the eyes.


Russian monkeys lost in space.

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Fetishizing the Really Real

I shoot with a DLSR from Canon’s 5D series and so I was delighted to learn that the new 5DS & R cameras would come with a 50 megapixel sensor. Naturally, I began to salivate: at that resolution, imagine the size of the images I could print! Once the exclusive province of medium and large-format Hasselblads costing tens (or even hundreds) of thousands of dollars, the hi-res image has fallen within reach of the consumer pro market. Although affordable, one must use the term advisedly since the 5DS & R bodies retail for more than C$4,000. I was determined to have one, but wasn’t sure how enthusiastic my wife would be about me spending that much money on something she regards as a toy for someone old enough to know better. We cut a deal: I can buy a 5DS but only after I’ve lost 20 lbs. What’s more, I will have to weigh in each morning and if I’m above my target weight, I don’t get to use the camera. My wife will have a healthy new husband who is more likely to provide her with companionship in her old age; I will have a new camera so I can deprive her of companionship in the here and now.

Halfway to my goal, the inevitable happens: rumours suggest that Sony will release a new camera with a 57 megapixel sensor. I’m despondent. I may as well eat a hamburger and drown my sorrows in a pitcher of beer. Who cares what I have slung around my neck as I waddle my fat ass through the streets.


“Accidentally” left my camera in aperture mode while walking indoors.

There will always be hardware that’s just beyond my latest purchase. The same is true of computer monitors, smart phones, tablets, processors, internet connections. Why do we subject ourselves to this cycle of desire and disappointment?

My kneejerk reaction is to suggest that this state of affairs arises from a conspiracy, or at least a synergistic manipulation, of technology manufacturers and global telcos. But in her book, On Photography, Susan Sontag hints at a more benign explanation—benign because it relies on a cultural narrative that predates (and in some respects lies beyond the reach of) technology manufacturers and global telcos. Addressing surrealism in photography, she writes:

The contingency of photographs confirms that everything is perishable; the arbitrariness of photographic evidence indicates that reality is fundamentally unclassifiable. Reality is summed up in an array of casual fragments—an endlessly alluring, poignantly reductive way of dealing with the world. Illustrating that partly jubilant, partly condescending relation to reality that is the rallying point of Surrealism, the photographer’s insistence that everything is real also implies that the real is not enough. By proclaiming a fundamental discontent with reality, Surrealism bespeaks a posture of alienation which has now become a general attitude in those parts of the world which are politically powerful, industrialized, and camera-wielding. Why else would reality ever be thought of as insufficient, flat, overordered, shallowly rational? In the past, a discontent with reality expressed itself as a longing for another world. In modern society, a discontent with reality expresses itself forcefully and most hauntingly by the longing to reproduce this one. As if only by looking at reality in the form of an object—through the fix of the photograph—is it really real, that is, surreal.

The production of ever-higher resolution cameras may be understood as a commercial answer to late modernism’s disaffection with the limitations of reality and its desire for the “really real”. It is not for nothing that Sontag titles her first chapter “In Plato’s Cave”.

In another sphere of digital life, Google has undertaken an analogous project. Google’s Streetview seeks to produce a regularly updated visual record of every publicly accessible street and path in the world. Its commercial justification is user convenience e.g. determining beforehand if there is parking available in front of a given building. But the project is grounded in a long-standing and well-publicized epistemology, what Jaron Lanier describes in We Are Not A Gadget as cybernetic totalism. Google believes that it is possible to know everything and to produce a searchable record of everything known. (It appears the NSA shares this belief.) However, the belief in a cybernetic totalism engages us with a paradox.

Imagine a future Google so technologically advanced that it can produce a “streetview” that documents every last bit of reality. The result is both granular and comprehensive, reproducing every subatomic particle in the universe. But where does one store a reproduction of the universe? And if a reproduction of the universe is stored in the universe, must it not also include a reproduction of itself to achieve its completeness? And must it not also include a reproduction of the reproduction? And so on.


Boulders in shrink wrap.

I don’t know enough about philosophy to say for certain, but I wonder if cybernetic totalism bears some relation to Bertrand Russell’s set paradox. The universe is like the set of all sets. The set of all sets includes a set whose function is to reproduce sets (like a giant streetview camera?). But a set-reproducing set can’t exist within the set it reproduces. Therefore the set of all sets cannot be the set of all sets.

I don’t engage this paradox for the simple pleasure of mind-fucking photographers, but rather to draw attention to the absence of a stable rationale for the pursuit of ever-increasing camera resolutions and the obsessive documentation it enables. Recently, twitter was awarble with news of a 365 gigapixel panorama of Mont Blanc and environs. It took two months for the team to stitch together the 70,000 images that comprise the panorama. If printed at 300 dpi, it would cover a football pitch. I receive this enthusiastically as data collection; I have more difficultly receiving it as photography. It illustrates the obsessional quality of a quest for the really real through photograph-as-reproduction. If they had the gear for it, I have no doubt our Mont Blanc photographers would photograph the universe and spread the resulting panorama on a giant celestial football pitch.


“Forgot” to delete a mistake.

Often, what jars us from our complacency and challenges us to refresh our craft is precisely what cuts across the grain of contemporary trends. In photography, those trends include fetishizing the really real. Hi-res DSLRs, instantaneous auto-focus, HDR in post-processing. All these tricks alleviate our anxieties about occupying indeterminate space.

Use film. Recharge the batteries in an old point-and-shoot. Switch everything to manual mode. Fuck image-processing software. We aren’t in this game to make enhanced copies of the real world. Leave mimesis back in ancient Greece where it belongs. Surely, after more than two millennia, we can come up with fresh ways to think about light and colour.

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The Hand Of Man

Three times a year, the Toronto Camera Club accepts submissions for its internal “Nature” competition. Members can submit under one of three categories: botany, zoology, and general. The general category is for nature-themed images where the main subject is neither plant nor animal e.g. a landscape, or seascape. There is one proviso: the submitted images cannot include any evidence of the “hand of man.” This isn’t an arcane proviso that a single club has imposed; it’s a requirement found in almost all nature-related competitions. Personally, I find the proviso annoying, not just because of the gendered language used to articulate it, but because it makes an assumption about our world that’s almost as quaint. The proviso assumes there is such a thing as a natural world. Experience suggests otherwise. For example, below is a shot taken from a rocky outcrop on the Finger Point Trail in Pigeon River. The birch trees are in bud, but the leaves haven’t come out yet, so it produces an interesting white against green effect. However, near the top, roughly a third of the way from the right side, there’s a slight break in the trees where you can see the road to the trail head.


Or how about the shot I took in Katherine Cove on the east shore of Lake Superior. Mid-May and there was still ice on the water. At first glance, the image seems to comply with the proviso. It looks perfectly natural. Until you start examining the colour of the ice. It’s covered in a layer of grime: a winter’s worth of airborne pollutants that circle the globe and gently settle back to the surface. Hand of man, indeed!


There are times when I just say: fuck it. What’s the point even pretending this is natural. Here, we have a lovely vista. In the foreground is a sign pointing the way to the place where we can best view the vista which, presumably, includes the sign. What a beautiful sign, and the background’s nice too.


Viewed as a pure abstraction, human elements can enhance the formal properties of a photograph that might otherwise count as a landscape. Here, it’s more of a highwayscape.


And what photo north of Superior would be complete without a discarded Timmies cup in the foreground.


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Photographing Buildings In Manhattan

Photographing buildings in Manhattan is a challenge, or at least it was for me last week, and for two reasons. First, I didn’t have the right gear, only my little mirrorless Fujifilm camera and a pancake lens. Second, even if I had the right gear, buildings in Manhattan have been shot to death. What could I possibly say that’s original or interesting? So I side-stepped the question. Instead of photographing buildings, I photographed people (since I was really there to do street photography anyways) and was mindful of buildings lurking in the background to give the people context. Here are some of the results.


Man sitting on fire hose connection with Flatiron Building in background


Flatiron Building viewed through scaffolding


Reflection of building in puddle at 5th & E 31st St.


Girl with violin & the Empire State Building in the background.


The Chrysler Building


Grand Central Station at night.

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The Proper Subject of Street Photography

What is the proper subject of street photography? Some people seem to equate street photography with stalking the homeless. Maybe they think photography isn’t authentic unless it’s gritty, and it isn’t gritty unless it portrays suffering. Who knows? I’m no mind reader. Personally, I find myself conflicted over the question of shooting vulnerable people. On the one hand, it feels exploitative. I prefer not to gain my advantages on the backs of other people. On the other hand, I recognize the value of photography’s role in social documentation. However, without a commentary to accompany the photograph, a photographer’s intention is often ambiguous.


One way to analyse a photograph is to address the triad of power relationships that it produces (amongst subject, photographer, and viewer). Ask: who gets to determine outcomes in the production of this image? Did the subject give permission? If not, did the photographer accord dignity to the subject? Is the viewer cast in the role of voyeur? Does the image manipulate their emotions in an obvious direction? Or does the image create space for the viewer to draw independent conclusions?


One rationale for surreptitious shots of the vulnerable is that it increases their representation in the media. Somehow, we magically enhance the social position of the marginalized by using photography to make them more visible. If we took shots only of professional white men in suits, our photographs would produce a distorted view of the world in which professional white men in suits appear more important than other people.

Well, yes and no. I think each photograph has to be considered in its own context. A surreptitious shot of a vulnerable person is quite a different beast than a surreptitious shot of a professional white man in a suit. As social documentation, both shots might have legitimacy. But the latter has about it a whiff of subversion, snatching power from power. The former has about it a whiff of exploitation.

Perhaps my opening question is misguided. Perhaps the proper subject matter of street photography is beside the point. Instead, it may be more fruitful to ask: how has the photographer behaved in the production of this image?

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