To The Victims of Street Photography
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In a recent piece in The Coffeelicious on Medium, photojournalist Edward Crawford explains how new image recording technologies changed his approach to street photography. New technologies such as smartphones, GoPros, even drones, raise once again the question of the privacy of the photographed persons, and Crawford invites his peers to discuss the issue. So I thought, why not bring the victims around the table, and explain and say what we have to say for ourselves?
I am a travel writer and photographer. One day in the streets of London, I started shooting portraits of strangers. I was instantly hooked. However, as a rule, privacy and image rights become crucial issues when an artist turns to street photography. I was not too sure about being an artist, but I sure was no exception to that rule. This piece includes some of the portraits I have shot around the world since then. I have no idea who these people are. More to the point, they have no idea they’ve been photographed.
First of all, what is street photography?
Street photography aims to collect candid shots of everyday acts of anonymous people in public spaces,
is one definition similar to the one adopted by Crawford in his piece. In reality, street photography as an art has evolved into multiple branches since it came into existence a short time after photography became a practicable technology in the 19th century.
That definition targets the kind of street photography that raises privacy questions: the candid one. The one where you photograph people prior to asking for their consent or most of the time without asking for it. It is the kind of street photography that Crawford has been doing, and that I do.
See how that definition says collect, not comment. Commenting means expressing something about your photographs; it means putting a filter between the shot and the observer of the shot. In my book, although you may describe the setting, the context, and technicalities of your photograph, you do not get to publicly comment on someone else’s life if that person did not give their informed consent to your photographing them, using their image and placing it next to a piece of text about them. Brandon Stanton’s work in HONY (Humans of New York) has widely popularized that kind of street photography. But Brandon Stanton asks before shooting.
Like a growing number of street photographers, I invested myself in that kind of work once, in a photoproject in Golden, a town in British Columbia. Informed consent was systematically sought, each person posed for the shot, and talked about themselves. For me, that was an enlightening, nurturing, but very different kind of work. The resulting photograph was not candid, and did not represent an everyday act, but an act of it.
However, conducting that photoproject taught me a paradox I am still marveling at. Both kinds of street photography, the kind Crawford and I regularly do and the kind HONY does, actually aim at the same thing: pinpointing what makes us all similar despite of our differences; collecting everyday emotions through everyday human faces and everyday human acts. To succeed, the first kind relies on anonymity; the other kind relies on the absence of it.
See how anonymity may mean different things: for you, it may mean the absence of your birth name and address next to the photograph; for me, it means that in the photograph per se, you could be anyone: no name, no comment. Just the anonymous you that anyone gets to see everyday in the street.
So how do new technologies impact street photography? As opposed to Crawford, I am only using a bridge camera, the one I carry everywhere in my travels, whether I am in the streets of Hiroshima or in the Alaskan backcountry. Currently, that camera is a Sony DSC-HX400V. Nothing too fancy.
In his piece, Crawford explains how the use of new technologies sometimes feels like stealing.
Clearly, using a smartphone easily makes you look like you’re trying to find your way on Google Maps. A GoPro camera makes you downright inconspicuous. Yet, I do not feel that shooting with a DSLR from fifty yards away or with a GoPro from five yards away makes a great deal of difference. I feel that the covert nature of street photography is actually a form of failsafe. It avoids physical intrusion, which would ruin the candid nature of the shot. It also avoids moral intrusion, namely putting the photographed person in a situation of distress, fear, anger, dilemma, or “acting” for the benefit of the photographer. This would give the photographer a form of power, of ascendancy over the photographed person, which would defeat the purpose. Remember: candid shots, everyday acts, anonymous people.
Of course, to the photographed person, it may not be about artistic definitions of privacy, but about legal definitions. What about your image rights?
The lawfulness of the capture and publication of someone’s image highly depends on the country you live in. The propagation of new technologies and the possibility to obtain a clear shot without posing (and thus potentially without consent), has fed the debate around modern street photography worldwide.
Many countries, including the “Anglo-Saxon” countries, have a rather liberal approach to the notion of public space and freedom of speech: public is public, and art is art. Therefore street photography is “okay”.
“Okay” here means that street photography does not invade your privacy, depending on what the photographer intends to do with their photographs. Selling them to third-parties or on company-scale levels (we call it “commercial sales”), most of the time requires your consent as the photographed person. Intending to use these photographs in a way that may cause you prejudice is also a red flag. For me as a photographer, good practices in street photography are not that much a question of Law than a question of respect toward the person that we are about to photograph.
So in those countries, the photographer may capture your image in a public space, publish it for artistic purposes, and sell it for their own benefit, as an artist (we call it “editorial sales”). In short, “okay” means that freedom of speech and artistic expression win, depending on the photographer’s intentions.
Some countries however passed much more repressive laws (Spain, Mexico, Brazil and Switzerland for instance). Some finally are notorious for being unable to make up their mind, like France, where every shot is a legal hazard for the photographer. It is rather striking when you know that France practically invented street photography with the pioneering works of Eugène Atget and Henri-Cartier Bresson. With their works and the works of other pioneers like Dorothea Lange in the US, street photography soon became an art, as early as the end of the 19th century, well before the notion of “informed consent” was even used. These works led to many others in the 20th century, including works by women like Berenice Abbott or Vivian Maier.
Today, all their photographs have a great cultural and anthropological value. Admittedly, they have made the fame of these individual photographers, not the one of the photographed persons. But these photographs also became our common heritage. Each shot is a witness of an Everyday that has long since evaporated.
Now how do I relate to all this, as a travel (and street) photographer? How do I relate to the fact that in the minds of many, photographing someone in a public space is a predatory gesture?
It makes me want to keep on shooting. See I am completely honest with you about this.
Over the last three decades, paparazzis, surveillance cameras and companies like Facebook have created — and understandably so — a worldwide craving for more privacy, even in public spaces.
But despite this tense context, we have also embraced the new image technologies that have emerged over the last ten years. We have empowered ourselves with an array of image capture possibilities. Today, we live in a world in which technology allows us, all of us, to collect images everywhere, every instant, sometimes with no specific intentions. In more and more places in the world, people carry GoPro cameras on their dashboard or on their bicycle helmets, or take 20M-pixel photographs of themselves and their pumpkin latte.
Interestingly, in such Instagram-bound shots, nobody worries about you or me being caught in the background, rearranging our bra or looking bored out of our mind. However, when a street photographer directs their lens at us, then the question of image rights immediately comes to our minds. “Was that a case of privacy infringement?”
There is a reason why the very concept of street photography worries us. There is a reason why, in that street where we got used to selfie-takers and surveillance cameras, suddenly we become aware that we can be seen. When a street photographer directs their lens at us, we are made the object of the photograph. We are not just being photographed; we become the photographee. There is intention in a street photographer’s shot.
For a few seconds, something incredible, something suspicious, happened: a stranger cared.
Despite the abundance of images, despite Instagram or Facebook, most of us today still feel that they are not seen for what they really are. Most of us still live invisible lives. For most of us, a great part of the world, especially what lies down our street, remains unknown.
This modern contradiction leaves us with an attitude that did not change, over centuries of technological advances. We still are these fearful, sometimes hateful, creatures. We have — haven’t we — that tendency to fear what we don’t see, and hate what we don’t know.
To me, street photography is one way that we have to fight that fear, and educate that hate. It transforms us into each other’s observers. It puts us into each other’s faces, whether we want it or not.
Recently, I have used introspective writing to try and understand why I started photographing the faces of strangers in the street. Their faces. What could be more private, more intimate than that?
Directing my lens at these strangers forces me to look at them, and see them. It forces those who will later browse my collections of portraits to realize how they are themselves surrounded with similar strangers, similar “portions of humanity”.
Have you noticed how observers get emotional when they watch some street photography? I like to observe them behind their back when they do. It’s like they do not only watch those strangers, but feel them. It’s like they project their own humanity on them, and receive it again, as it bounces back.
Does it really matter that the photographees do not get to become their own observers — namely, that the photographed persons never find out that they have been photographed?
Well, not really.
Every photographee is a potential observer of other photographees — whether in exhibits, coffee table books, or Instagram galleries. And new technologies have made it possible for every photographee to someday become a photographer.
I feel that this “finding-out” question relies in great part on that “predator vs. victim” imagery and lexicon that has developed around street photography in the last few decades. We say "shooting"; we discuss "consent". In French, we use the verb "braquer" when we direct a camera at someone, which is a very graphic verb that we primarily use when we hold someone at gun's point. So when I come out as a street photographer to friends for the first time and they are not well-acquainted with that form of photography, they sometimes wonder aloud if it does not make me some weird kind of voyeur or thief, with a weird kind of neurosis.
Come to think of it, maybe I should start “wondering” too: is that person I photographed yesterday a rapist? And that one a liar? That other one an abuser, and this one right here a con man? Or maybe they are all freaking saints.
The uncomfortable truth behind my doing street photography may be this: when I shoot, that doesn’t matter. For a few seconds between the adjustment of the focal point and the click, all that comes to my mind is: “I am human, and so are you.” The feeling it procures me is incredibly soothing. For a few seconds, it suspends time; it suspends identity; it suspends fear. And I believe that the same thing happens during the few seconds an observer spends on each shot.
Is street photography a form of activism, I wonder? Do I intend it as such? For me as a photographer, it is an act of conveying our shared humanity, of publicly pinpointing what unites us all — despite any individual reluctance or legal ban. Isn’t it this, precisely, that defines art?
has collected portraits in the streets of:
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