I have a feeling that in this day and age we’ve all done it, taken a picture in public of someone without their knowledge or consent. Even before the cell phone camera age, I know I used to troll around Seattle with my mom’s manual Minolta, snapping shots of scenes and people I deemed interesting. Truly, some of the most fascinating photographs are candids. I’ll not deny that fact. I can remember in a high school photography class a kid raising her hand and asking our teacher if it was ethical to take candids of strangers, or whether we needed to confirm consent first. Our teacher paused, clearly having never posed the question to herself and decreed there to be no rules.
Should there be rules? Eh, probably not, because we’d miss out on some tremendous art that illuminates the human experience. My friend Ted, for example, has taken up “documentary photography” and is out on the streets taking extraordinary shots in public spaces. He’s capturing all sorts of things–various subcultures in their elements, ordinary lives, street fashion. His photos allow us a glimpse into the lives of others, and we may take flights of fancy, drawing our own conclusions. There’s no way his work would resonate the way it does if he was stopping each individual and group to ask for consent, have them sign a form and pose for him. Or worse, fake a candid. Ugh.
Of course, Brandon Stanton’s Humans of New York is an example of posed, consented work. But his aim is different. He seeks to elucidate the human experience, one story at a time, in the subject’s own words. His subjects choose to be candid, by sharing a facet of their lives with us alongside their photograph. We know them through how they choose to present themselves to us. We take them at their word.
Years ago, my friend Pam and I posted up at a coffee shop in downtown Seattle to watch the Juggalos line up to see the band Twizted perform. We were interested in this subculture of people who painted their faces like insane clowns and showered in Faygo soda pop (or so the stereotype goes). After a while I ventured across the street, wading into the darkly painted crowd to meet some Juggalos. My intention was to see if the freaks would pose for me so Pam and I could obsess over their pictures later. A makeup artist myself, I used the opening line, “did you do your own makeup?” as I went from group to group. I asked to take photos and people generously posed for my cell phone. Soon I was immersed in conversation with folks about why and how they came to belong to the band of Juggalos. I learned. I connected. I was humbled by the openness and candor of this strange group. I was a creep.
What of creeps who take pictures of people unknowingly for unkind ends? It happened to me. When I moved to my current desert climate I ditched all my work dress pants for skirts and dresses. Almost immediately upon arriving at a new job, an older female colleague took umbrage with my wardrobe and created an underground campaign to have me disciplined for my short hemlines. In a perfect example of the women-on-women violence I deplore, she was sneaking up behind me at work to take pictures of me and texting them to others in the office. Because I worked at a stand-up desk in the building lobby, I was an easy target–all legs and ass, apparently. These pictures were making their way to the organization’s leadership, who were dismissing them, without addressing the inappropriate nature of surreptitious photo-taking. Was it OK because a woman was taking shots of another woman’s body? Had it been a male amateur photographer, I’d have had much more solid ground on which to allege sexual harassment. But because the perpetrator was a 60 year-old mom, there was no way she was a creep, right?
Wrong. It was gross, and a violation of both sexual harassment laws and personal privacy. And yet, it wasn’t treated as such, because those in power either agreed with her that my clothing was inappropriate or didn’t want to get into it. In the end, the office dress code was rewritten.
But before I get all frothed up about violations, I have to own the fact that I, too, have been the surreptitious photographer–pretending to text or take selfies as I snap away. And the last time I can remember doing this, it was behind someone’s back, for the purpose of picking apart his clothing choices. And I posted it to facebook to make it a community thing.
I suppose, by my own definition, that makes me a creep. Sigh.
Thanks for mentioning my work! You bring up a lot of great points about candids. They’re very tricky for me personally. For one, I hate getting my own picture taken (ironic, yes) and I’m also non-confrontational by nature. In many cases (though it varies somewhat by location) it is perfectly legal to take candid photos in public spaces, though being legal doesn’t mean that it’s always right. Picking up a camera has forced me to think a lot about who I photograph, and how I do it, bringing up a lot of moral questions about taking photos in public.
Over time I’ve developed some rules for myself when I take pictures–most important among them is to do my best to not show others in an negative light (this is more in terms of how they are being portrayed than about aesthetics, though I do try to avoid unflattering images) which means I discard some images that, upon review, may be construed as mean-spirited. There’s a balancing act between this rule and the desire to be truthful. I’ve only asked a handful of people out on the street to pose for a picture, and the results have always come off as less truthful, and in my opinion, less flattering, than if there was no ask for consent.
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