Sunday, August 12, 2007

It's about respect: This ain't no sideshow, this is reality

Tompkins Square Park
East Village, Manhattan

I had the pleasure of chatting with Carl today during my wanderings through the East Village.

"Hot day," I said as we finished our conversation. "I don't do too well in this heat."
"I'm of Norwegian extraction," Carl answered. "How do you think I feel?"


I love chatting with the people whose photos I take -- time, theirs and mine, permitting. And that leads to my answer to a question posed by my blog friend Jean:

I was wondering if you might say something some time about interaction with the subjects of your photographs and getting their consent or not for taking and publishing the pictures.
To me, photographing people without getting to know at least a little about them is no more than going on a human photo safari. I think one of the things that makes street photography so vibrant is the context into which the images can be put by providing even the sparsest background information to the viewer. Otherwise, the photos sometimes can easily mislead. Sure, it's not always possible to get a person's name or an insight, however limited, into their lives. But usually, when I make the effort, I benefit personally for it and so do my photos. It's very easy to misinterpret the context of a photo's setting, a person's facial expression and so on. Interaction between the photographer and the person photographed can minimize this.

OK, enough of the philosophical underpinnings.

I always ask a person for permission to take their photo. If they say no, I thank them and move on. If they express reservations, I sometimes ask if I can photograph them in a way that would preserve their anonymity. Back in December, I saw two men playing chess in Tompkins Square Park. I asked if I could take their photo. They said no, they didn't want their faces captured. I said OK, can I just photograph your hands, and they assented. I was given lemons, and in this instance I made tasty lemonade:

In June, I approached a man who had similar misgivings about having his photo taken. So I asked if I could shoot him from the shoulders down. I like what resulted:

I'm very lucky, in that I've been turned down fairly few times when I ask to take someone's photograph. For every 10 requests, I may get one rejection. There are days, however, when it seems I can't even pay people to say yes. I accept some responsibility for this, because success lies in the energy I project and the way in which the question is presented. Happily, such strikeouts are infrequent.

As you would expect, when a person feels he or she is being approached for a photo in the same way one would photograph someone in a circus sideshow, that can lead to confrontation. And that's where respect comes in. I have found that if I approach people candidly and sincerely and explain my reasons for wanting to photograph them -- because of the way their face appears in the afternoon light, for instance, or because of an interesting tattoo or the position in which they're sitting -- they often agree. But I've also learned that people have pretty accurate bullshit detectors, and if there's a whiff of insincerity or exploitation to a photo request, people see through it really quickly. Honesty truly is the best policy. I tell people straight up why I want to photograph them -- even if my reasons sometimes aren't particularly flattering to them -- and I explain about this blog and how much recording the places and people of the East Village means to me. And then I offer to e-mail them copies of the original raw images.
And usually, they're cool with it.

I take lots of photos in Tompkins Square Park. And let me make it very clear that there are some people in the park who would just as soon beat the crap out of me or any other photographer and smash our cameras as say good morning. My friend Bob Arihood has alerted me to this danger, and forewarned is forearmed. Sometimes, these confrontations are sparked by unlikely instigators. I've already had a verbal tussle with a fellow photographer who thinks he has proprietary rights to photograph the park's denizens, and who bases his feelings on his disdain for digital photography. I wish this man would let me chat with him so that he could see what I'm about.

But I also have gained the friendship and respect of some rather reclusive people by extending to them the same courtesy and dignity I would demand for myself. And this leads to photographic access that isn't granted to just anyone. And yes, I'm proud of that. Very proud.
And I hope I do justice to their confidence in me by portraying them in ways that highlight their humanity.

Jean, I hope I've answered your question without going off on too many tangents.


Jean said...

Thanks. Very interesting and helpful. I'm rather shy about talking to strangers, so I often don't photograph people when I'd love to. And occasionally, I have to admit, I have sneaked,and even blogged, a photo without asking. I don't see any absolute ethical prohibition on photographing people who are out in public. On the other hand, I don't feel great about it either. I think I have to start making more effort, let my desire to take pictures help me to overcome my inhibitions, and thereby I'm sure have some interesting and surprising encounters.

One of the best photographers of people I've ever known was a veteran journalist, who started out in the era when they routinely sent a photographer on assignment with you and was still working when budgets were tighter and they shoved an automatic camera in his hand and urged him to have a go at taking his own. He was close to the end of his working life, had a good eye, but no technical knowledge or interest at all. But what he did have from a long career as a journalist was a huge curiosity and honed ability to engage with people. His photographs reflected this.

YourFireAnt said...

Michael, this is the ethical and respectful approach to photography that ought to be taught in all schools where taking images is studied. I'm impressed by the variety of images you've gotten as a result. Your eye so often charms and intrigues me, and now knowing a little bit about how you go about capturing these wonderful images just adds to my admiration.

Thanks for your work.


Charlie Wood said...

Hello Michael.
Thanks for your comments on my blog New York Monochrome.
Good luck with the Nikkormat you cant beat Tri-X its a great film.


Michael said...

Hi Charlie,

Your work is masterful and I hope anyone reading this will visit your great blog and check it out for themselves:

Hello FA,

Thanks so much for your very kind words. I'm flattered and humbled, as usual, by your comments.

Hello Jean,

Look, there are times when I've violated my own principles to get a shot at all costs. That's partly due to my training as a newsman, and partly due, quite frankly, to my selfishness and acquisitiveness.

But in cases where a bond has been formed, however tenuous, between photographer and subject, I believe it shows in the image, most times. Still, it is sometimes better to ask forgiveness than permission. The moment needs to be captured, and it will pass by the time you ask a person for his or her consent.

Legally, people in public spaces are more or less fair game for photographers in this country. I think it centers on reasonable and realistic expectation of privacy in such settings. I ask for permission about 95 percent or more of the time and, like you, don't feel particularly good about those instances in which I don't. The only instances in which I categorically do not ask for permission are when I am photographing a person from behind and am sure there is no distinguishing feature that would identify the subject.

Jean said...

Oh yes, in Europe or US I would regard asking afterwards 'was that okay with you and do you mind if put it on my website?' as not much less respectful than asking before - if the whole point is snapping someone in the act of doing something interesting, then it would be a shame to lose the opportunity. Maybe a little different somewhere where there are different cultural, a well as personal, sensitivities.

I very much like your observation that 'where a bond has been formed, however tenuous, between photographer and subject, I believe it shows in the image'. I'm sure that's true. Certainly it's what makes the pictures of the friend I mentioned so good.

Michael said...

Yes, and it's always reflected in the person's eyes...

Thanks, Jean.

mall said...

Hi Michael,

I don't know enough about photography to fiddle with settings and such, but it is a very interesting medium. I just aim, shoot and see what transpire. Sometimes it's the spontaneous, unplanned shot that turns out to be more interesting; but still, it wouldn't hurt to learn more.

I've just been soaking in your photography advice and tips, very informative. Thanks very much.I'll work up the nerve to ask people for their photographs one of these days. It feels a bit awkward if it's not something I do regularly. I'm sure it's just a matter of practice.

Michael said...

Hi Mall,

It has been my experience that the best way to learn how to fiddle around with settings is to fiddle around with settings. With digital, mistakes don't cost you anything; just erase the photo if you don't like it, or undo what you've done if you're using photo editing software.

Thanks for the kind words on what I've written. It's derived from what others have advised me to do.