what sort of world?

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.

testing the theory

The business of taking street photos was an interesting one.  I spent a lot of time trying to be very unobtrusive, mixing images of people with images of buildings and rivers.  My instinctive starting point was that I shouldn’t interrupt the person in the moment, that they should be unaware and undisturbed.  And I reasoned that if I misjudged that and they did notice or mind, I would apologize, delete, or show them the photo and offer to send it to them.  I was making it up as I went along.  Many a photo was missed because I didn’t dare.

When I got home, there were very few pictures that I liked.  Most were deleted before they came off the camera card.  Many more went when I looked at them more carefully.  I had no real criteria for this.  Some of them just felt wrong.

I was left with two.  Our woman in Red, and an older man who caught my eye as he came up from the metro (lets call him Blue).

That night, I chose to post her, and leave him alone. In retrospect, I think it was because — for all that one might read tiredness or sadness or concern into her position — she struck me as universal.  With him, it felt more personal.  As much as I liked the photo, I wasn’t sure it was right.

And then, having posted her on blog and facebook.  I took her down — swayed by a friend’s concern, the open questions of what was right.

Then, obviously, I reversed those decisions to push at the boundaries of understanding.  Here is where I stand right now:

  1. I realise that I kept the photographs that I liked.  I liked the colours, the lines, the shapes.  And crucially, I liked what I saw of the person.
  2. I deleted the photographs that I didn’t like.  Sometimes this was about background or blur, but mostly, it was about my sense of the person.  If I was left feeling cold, or ambivalent — if the moment I caught made me or the other person seem less human, then it went quickly into the bin.
  3. I realised, therefore, that I thought street photographs were OK if they somehow felt incarnational — embodying something of the goodness, truth or beauty of the human condition, and something of God’s love, even if the moment caught was one that might (might!) speak of sorrow, weariness, or indecision.  Humanity is not diminished by the presence of pain.  The more I look at our woman in red, the more I like her, and the more I see her strength and beauty, whatever else may be going on.

I know this is terribly subjective, and there is not, as yet, a coherent ethic here.
But I can live with that.  Ethics are rarely black and white, and struggling for a coherent position is part of the process.  The only way to get there is to test and talk and try.

There’s one more post in this, I think.  But I shall stop here for now.

a question of ethics

It sounded like a simple goal: a day of photographs, with no churches, otters or birds.  It led to fascinating and complex conversations about the ethics of street photography, and I’m still not sure where I stand.  So, I’m going to share some of the questions that arose– and, riskier, the photographs — as I try to work this out.

Question 1:  What do you see in this photograph?

Question 2:  Is this woman harmed or exploited by the taking of this photograph?

Question 3:  If we speculate on her state of mind, are we invading her privacy?

Question 4:  Is it wrong to post this, or to choose to look at it?

Question 5:  Does it matter whether she is recognizable, or whether you might recognize her?  So, is it different to view this picture from Boston or Haiti or LA — so that you are looking at someone remote, whom you will probably never meet or see — than it is to view it from Hebburn or Jesmond or Durham, when you might bump into her on the street?

Now, lets try all that again with this picture:

Question 6:  Are questions of privacy, intrusion, ethics different if one uses paint rather than pixels?

Question 7:  Does it matter whether the woman is recognizable, if the painting is representational, accurate?

Lets try this one more time, with a modern painting by Richard Whincop.  (This is a painting I love, that Richard gave me when I left my curacy, so lots of you will have seen it before…)

Question 8:  Would your feeling about the picture that hangs on my wall be any different if Richard had given me the original photograph, instead of his painting of it?  What if the painting an photograph were identical in terms of recognizability and emotional expression?  (I’m not saying they are.  But I’m not saying they’re not.  Does it matter?)

Well, that should keep us busy for a while. What do you think?

feast day

Cuthbert has had a good day (and the charcoal hasn’t even been stoked yet for evensong).

The wrens were hopping branch to branch along the old pilgrimage route.
A flock of goldfinch joined in procession.

There were 85 or so at the mid-day eucharist, and it felt more like the whole church gathered than ever I have known it too at the Cathedral (was it the teenagers, maybe?). The light danced on the flame-warmed air, and the transfiguration window blazed in glory.

Afterwards, the Millennium window threw colour at the Hatfield tomb.  The play of it led all but the French teenagers to stop.  One tour group got carried away touching the stone and gold leaf saying, ‘but is it the tomb or the light?’ while another were left breathless with sighs of ‘the colour!’ ‘oh, aye.’

In the cloisters, there was a jaunty Westie, who was gathered up in his human’s arms, and carried carefully to the shrine.

And then, through town, the pilgrims carried a new banner, beautifully wrought, with silver bells swinging.

Blessed Cuthbert: a jubilee gift.

Still, I confess:  I had hoped for otters at the tomb.