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.