Those of you who know me best will have been aware of the irony behind my foray into street photography: I hate having my photograph taken. I can be immensely private. Unless I am preaching, teaching or otherwise engaged in a public role, I hate being watched and quite often long for an invisibility cloak. All of which is to say: I have no desire to invade other people’s privacy or make them feel uncomfortable.
But still, I think this business of street photography is important.
I value a world in which photography can help us to see. Good photo-journalism has changed and deepened our understanding of the world, and good street photography — whether for art or for journalism — can express the reality of a moment more clearly than any number of words.
I don’t pretend that that is what I am doing when I take photographs. I haven’t the skill. But I do think that by looking more carefully, we learn to see. As I sought photographs, I was much more engaged with the people around me. I noticed more. I laughed more. I liked the people around me more, and was better aware of our shared humanity.
That happens when I look at photographs too. If you think of famous street photographs, they are usually striking not only for their composition and light, but for the truths they express of the human condition. Sometimes those truths are painful, but I’ll say again what I said in the last post: our dignity is not reduced by the presence of vulnerability or pain.
I got into an interesting conversation with someone about the ethics of the photograph taken of Phan Ti Kim Phuc, the little girl who was fleeing naked from a napalm attack in Vietnam. One possibility is that the photograph exploits her: a private terror is exposed in a most inhumane way. Another possibility is that it gives her back her strength: in a war in which her life was deemed unimportant, we see her and our hearts cry out to share her pain. I lean toward the latter view. I don’t think the photograph degrades her. I think it reveals that she is human, and that is a noble and a beautiful thing.