Tag Archives: Ethics

White Men In Business Suits

Why do street photographers do so little work with white men in business suits? Why are they so preoccupied with “grittier” themes? After all, if street photographers ignore white men in business suits, they might feel left out. Who knows? They might even feel discriminated against.

If you take the time to talk to white men in business suits, you’ll discover that they are people too. I should know. Once or twice a year, I put on my armour and go out into the world as a white man in a business suit. It can be an alienating experience. It makes me feel lonely. I want people to hold my hand and to comfort me.

Man in suit climbing stairs

I took the photo above while wandering through Toronto’s financial district. During rush hour, a lovely late-afternoon light was streaming down a west-facing staircase. I positioned myself at the foot of the staircase and waited. Being a white middle-aged man means I blend right in. Okay, I have a mustache, but apart from that, I blend right in. Every now and then, a person would veer from the standard rush-hour course and climb the stairs. Click, click, click. And then I’d wait for someone else to pass.

This photograph (and my cheeky remarks at the opening of this post) point up a conflict inherent in street photography. There is a conflict between street photography’s professed claim to be a documentary discipline (maybe even a species of photojournalism) on the one hand, and its aesthetic aims as a photographic art on the other hand. Ethics and aesthetics.

As a documentary discipline, street photography aims to capture the world as it is. But it would be naive to believe that the world presents itself to us as it is; the world is mediated to us through our interpretive lens even before it passes through the camera’s lens. The world as it is includes white men in business suits, but street photographers make a decision to weight the world as it is in favour of less well-dressed subjects. At its best, this is the photographic expression of a liberation theology with its preferential option: photography becomes a radical approach that casts light into the dark corners of marginal lives.

This is high-minded language, and something worth aspiring to, but I don’t always trust photographers who use such language to justify their encounters with the world as it is. It’s telling that photography deploys the language of mastery to describe the mechanics of image-making. We capture moments in time. We frame the subject. We take photographs. The flavour of our language is distinctly colonial. Do photographers care about their disenfranchised subjects? Or do their actions merely fetishize the homeless and people of colour? Maybe this is just another species of poverty porn.

As an aesthetic discipline, street photography likewise aims to capture the world as it is. But “the world as it is” means something specific within the enterprise. Here, reality doesn’t refer to the world as it is so much as to a set of visual conventions that has evolved over the past 180 years. Elements in a photograph signal meanings just as words in novel. A catch-light in the eye signals a deeper interior life. Wrinkles on an elderly face signal wisdom and lived experience. An upturned gaze signals hope or optimism. In the same way, other elements can certify reality. The graininess of a high ISO, for example, suggests the grittiness of a dirty street. A slight blurring indicates motion, as if the photographer was pursued when the shutter was released. Perhaps the most important element to certify reality is the portrayal of suffering.

In his Poetics, Aristotle said that in order to produce the cathartic effect of tragedy, the poet had to evoke feelings of pity and terror. But in the age of Oprah and Disney, the rules have changed. Our world avoids tragedy the way bats avoid light. Our narrative insists on a redemptive end that’s won through suffering. Like the ancient poets, we are free to evoke pity with portrayals of suffering, but it’s an ironclad rule that we must simultaneously hint at the possibility of hope. If a narrative denies the possibility of hope, it denies everything we know to be real.

Suffering is the nexus where the twin aims of street photography come into conflict. As photojournalism, street photography justifies the portrayal of suffering as a way to expose the consequences of unfettered power and seeks to hold such power accountable. But as aesthetic expression, it forces the portrayal of suffering into the constraints of the prevailing narrative (perhaps invented by organs of that same unfettered power). That narrative trivializes suffering by attaching to it the puerile moral assumptions that are fed to us through social media and airhead news commentators: suffering is the prerequisite to redemption, and if redemption never comes, you probably didn’t deserve it anyways.

Returning to my photograph of the white man in a business suit, I think I understand what’s troublesome about it. While it includes a pseudo narrative of suffering and redemption (man climbs stairs and will eventually emerge into the light where he will go to his club and drink a single malt), it fails to fulfill the documentary convention because it offers us nothing to care about. It resorts, instead, to a faux grittiness. It trivializes the trivial. What could be more au courant than that?

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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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The All Important Question

Sooner or later, every street photographer has to confront the gnawing question: am I an asshole? Always, there will be people who see you with your camera and accuse you of being a stalker. They call you a pervert or a voyeur. You respond with high-minded talk about documenting the cultural moment for the benefit of future generations, or about the aesthetic of street that captures the soul of local culture. But as with all creatives, doubt eats away at your high-minded talk; maybe it’s all bullshit. Worse: maybe your work is garbage.

It doesn’t help when word comes over the wire that a man from a nearby neighbourhood has just been convicted of mischief for using a concealed camera to photograph women’s backsides or, as the Toronto Star article so genteelly puts it, their derrieres.

News like this has a chilling effect on the legitimate activities of street photographers. But, doubt being what it is, you begin to wonder if there are any activities left to a photographer that qualify as legitimate. Maybe the line has been redrawn and now you find yourself standing on the wrong side of it. The chill sets in when, rather than ask questions about where your work falls in relation to that line, you play it safe and share only your work that’s nice and inoffensive. Pretty soon, your work has all the kitschiness of a Disney feature film.

But before you get too self-critical, maybe you should take a look at the article to see if there are ways to distinguish what that photographer did from what you do. Maybe there’s still room for some edge in your work without being a complete asshole.

First, there’s the element of concealment. That seems to be important to the finding of mischief. Most street photographers tend to be unobtrusive, opting for a mirrorless camera with a small body, but they don’t go so far as to shoot with a hidden camera. Still, one wonders if it’s fair to presume mischief from concealment. Think of Walker Evans’ 1966 book, Many Are Called, featuring photographs he shot with a hidden camera while riding the New York subways. Maybe mischievous intent shouldn’t be inferred from the fact of concealment but from the results of that concealment: the photos themselves.

Second there is the question of a sexual purpose. The judge even cites Robert Mapplethorpe. Maybe he wants us to think he’s, like, attuned, you know, to aesthetic stuff. He acknowledges that images of derrieres can be concerned with form rather than titillation. And since he can’t say for sure that the secretive photographer was shooting backsides for solely sexual purposes, he dismisses the more serious charge of voyeurism.

Personally, I feel some empathy for the accused. While I believe that shooting women’s backsides with a hidden camera is a douchy thing to do, I can see how my own photographic activities, no matter how benign my intentions, could easily be interpreted against me.

How about this photo? I couldn’t help myself. In my favour, I shot it in a public space, the camera wasn’t concealed, and the woman’s identity isn’t obvious. But, undeniably, I have shot her backside. On which side of the public mischief line does this photo place me?

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Let’s push it a little further. Here’s a photo of a young woman, including her derriere. As before, I shot it in a public space, the camera wasn’t concealed, and the woman’s identity isn’t obvious. But there’s a tripod stuck between her legs and the whole arrangement can be interpreted in classically Freudian terms. In my favour, the woman is a photographer trying to do the street thing herself. She can’t very well run around with a camera and complain when someone takes her picture.

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One more shot to explore the question of interpretation. It’s an apparently benign image from Toronto’s Buskerfest. But a particular kind of interpretation is more apt to arise if the photograph appears in a context where that interpretation is expected. For example, in an article discussing mischief and voyeurism, all kinds of interpretations seem plausible.

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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.

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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?

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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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The Ethics of Shooting Graffiti

I wonder if it’s okay to shoot graffiti. The reason for my concern is that if I shoot graffiti I’ll be appropriating the creative expression of someone else. All the originality and work is theirs. I simply point my camera and click a button. There is always the argument that because graffiti defaces property, it doesn’t lie in the graffiti artist’s mouth to complain that their rights have been violated by a digital appropriation. Then again, some photographers take their appropriation to its logical conclusion, giving rise to the possibility that maybe graffiti artists DO have something to complain about. I’ve seen photographers advertising prints of graffiti for sale on fineartamerica. It’s as if graffiti is a raw resource, like timber or crude oil, and anyone is free to stake a claim and try to make some money from it.

Thankfully, ethics has no necessary connection to property interests (or to the law, for the matter). There’s a pithy quote from Isaac Asimov’s Foundation novel that can be adapted to this situation: Never let your sense of morality prevent you from doing what is right. Substitute “legality” for morality and there you go.

It seems to be a longstanding and intuitive principle of fairness that one should not profit from someone else’s efforts. Those efforts can take different forms. After all, there is graffiti. And then there is graffiti.

There is sanctioned graffiti. Municipalities commission artists to cover walls as a way to keep people from covering the walls.

Graffiti in Toronto

Or they give over public space to private corporations (as Toronto did below to a property developer, Lanterra) to commission artists to cover walls as a way to keep people from covering the walls.

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