Tompkins Square Park
East Village, Manhattan
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 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.