Bond Street & 64th Street, Southwest Corner

Monday, April 19, 2010

Ethics of street photography

Originally posted April 15, 2010

I photographed the street corners on Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Boulevard on September 1, 2006. I started at 110th Street and worked my way up the east side of the street, shooting the corners on the west side, and when I reached the top (155th Street), turned around and came back down the west side of the street, shooting the corners on the east side.

Towards the end of the day's shoot I was at 123rd Street, had just shot the southeast corner and was setting up to do the northeast corner when I was stopped by someone who objected to my taking pictures of people.

Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Boulevard & 123rd Street, Southeast Corner

He said it was disrespectful, that I should ask first, that he was speaking for some people across the street who didn't want to be photographed but didn't want to come over and confront me directly.

He said that what I was doing up in Harlem was something I wouldn't do in my own neighborhood — he was wrong about that, but that's neither here nor there — and I was taking pictures here, in Harlem, because as a white man I could get away with it.

He then told me a story — I have no reason to believe it wasn't true (but actually no reason to believe it is true, other than his own apparent sincerity) — about a couple of black kids going to prison for 5–10 years after their car hit a white child who had heedlessly run into the street and the police had believed the white people's version of what had happened.

And more — I just listened, though without backing down from my position that it was OK to take pictures of people in public without their consent — it is certainly legal, though some subsequent uses of such pictures, especially for commercial purposes, do require permissions from the people in them.

He suggested that I wouldn't believe the story about the black kids going to prison and I told him that I actually I did believe him, or at least had no reason not to.

He said that in any event what I was doing was wrong, and that I knew that it was wrong.

After he'd finished saying what he had to say, he went on his way, with a look of real disgust on his face, and I returned to setting up to take the northeast corner of the intersection, which I did, and then went on down to 122nd Street, and so on, back to 110th where I'd started from.

I think his objections are serious — they were on my mind when I started taking pictures on the streets, even before I started New York in Plain Sight, and they're still on my mind today. It comes down to a few questions:

Is it disrespectful per se, and therefore wrong, to take someone's picture without their permission?

Is it, moreover, racist for a white photographer in America to take pictures of black people without their permission?

Is it, by analogy, wrong for a housed photographer to take pictures of unhoused people without their permission, regardless of the race of either the photographer or the people being photographed?

There are surely more variations, but I think these cover enough of the ground to make the issues clear.

Of course these are not new questions, and not even all that specific to the practice of photography. Sociologists, ethnologists, anthropologists routinely confront similar questions. And there don't seem to be any firm answers.

Last year I was discussing this with an anthropologist friend of mine, Moshe Shokeid, and he showed me a book from 1940 by Evans-Pritchard on the Nuer — he was delighted to have just bought a first edition — that includes many photographs, including one of an unclothed chieftain. Moshe said to me that in 1940 it was possible to publish such a book but that he didn't think one could get away with it today.

Despite the near total acceptance of nude pictures in all sorts of publications over the past 70 years, it would be considered disrepectful, racist, imperialist, etc. if the the photograph of the unclothed Nuer chieftain were submitted for scholarly publication in 2010. And in many respects rightly so, perhaps, though the loss of the visual record that our improved sensibilities has brought with it would, no doubt, be a very real loss — and is this not also itself disrespectful, that we should not record and remember people as they are and were?

The sociologist Mitchell Duneier seems to have found a way through these questions in his marvelous book Sidewalk, with its compelling photographs by Ovie Carter, but I have no idea how I might apply Duneier's in-depth approach to the people of a single intersection to a project of the breadth — and, by comparison, depthlessness — of New York in Plain Sight. And as a photographer I am, alas, no Ovie Carter either.

I'm not clever enough to have any answers, myself. The issues, it seems to me, are real, and they are real because racism is real, homelessness is real, poverty is real, injustice is real. And as long as these realities cross our lives, we will — I hope — continue to be uncomfortable with them.

And not only in photography.

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