“What happens when you interrogate yourself? What happens when you begin to call into question the tacit assumptions and unarticulated presuppositions and begin then to become a different kind of person?”
–Dr. Cornell West
I have long tried to get at the underlying philosophy of Street Photography. What is it exactly that makes a normal and decent human being (wait, I’m talking about photographers, i.e. not normal, decent, nor probably human) strap on a camera and and carry ten to twenty pounds of lenses, film (or ahem…memory cards) and other essentials around in a bag to take pictures of perfect strangers on the streets of anytown, anycountry, earth?
Because it’s expensive, it’s intrusive, and well, there is something there that bothers me. Is street photography an ethic, a lifestyle, or merely a moment? Is it exploitative to photograph people without explicit permission? What do you do when people say NO! What if means a paycheck? Do it anyway? Or figure out a work-around?
Unless you are a Paparazzi trying to get a Lindsay Lohan nipslip, hack Scarlett Johansson’s phone, or you are on the ground with MSF in Mogadishu, your brand of Street Photography probably doesn’t pay all that well. Sure you may get a lot of attention on Flickr and Facebook and your Google analytics is off the chart for your hardcore, gritty, high contrast portrayal of Seoul, New York or Sydney, but how many jobs have you gotten from it? So, it’s a very expensive hobby and more likely a way to bond with other street photographers in the area. Either way, you’re in the red. And if you shoot digital, doubly so. Why? because digital photography costs more. A lot more. Ask your Macbook.
Most photographers worth their salt know that within the public domain anything goes. Almost. In the United States, legally you can take a photo of anything happening anywhere outside. Basically. Unless it happens to be a potential terrorist target. Like a building. Or a bridge. That would make New York–and in the You-Are-Either-With-Us-Or-Against-Us modern age, most modern cities–a photography-free zone. In Japan, shooting with a tripod requires a similar permit as that of a commercial shoot and will be vigorously challenged by any and all senior citizen security guards with no real authority. Police across the globe can be vague about legalities, insulting, and even violent toward photographers who are demonstrating their right to record. And the average citizens you turn your lens on can all too quickly turn very ugly. Why is taking a photograph of people in public illegal in certain countries? Why is it that some people tend to hide or become aggressive when their pictures are taken? Is it the paranoid thought that this could end up making them look bad on the internet somewhere? The primitive fear that it may capture a part of their soul, never to be returned? Or something altogether different? Rather is it a moral question? Or a civil liberties issue? What about Google Earth? Satellites in general?
The Kernel of Doubt
Photojournalists help us see the world while reporting the news. War photographers risk their lives in the understanding that they can take a bullet for being in the middle of the action. Artists help us make sense of the chaos that clashes all around us. What is the legacy of the street photographer? What does he or she get from loitering in crowded public spaces in countries with low crime rates reeling off frame after frame of girls holding umbrellas? Chain-smoking touts with Bowie hair? Homeless in parks? What is the impetus for standing around holding a machine to your eye and clicking a button to record a fraction of the present, only to go home, unload the camera in the dark, develop, fix, water bath, hang, dry, cut and sleeve the negatives, to eventually hold them up to the light and print one, two or maybe five images? What process is served? What do we get from recording one particular moment in a sea of infinite times? Is this system an analog memory backup? Or do we merely seek kudos from peers and fans? Is the world so big and flush with memorable scenes that in order to grasp at understanding it we need to try to catalog its chaos?
Or is it capturing a specific scene? For many westerners, the neon lights and bleached blonde kewpie-doll gyaru’s of Shibuya seems to possess some kind of neo-modern allure. What Koichi Iwabuchi, says of “western observers of Japan…shared ontological assumptions about the West and the exotic but inferior Other, Japan. They were fascinated with some exotic parts of Japan, and lamented the loss of ‘authentic’ Japanese tradition in the process of modernisation.” Are we post-racist or is this still relevant?
Street Photography Examined
Can you define it? Or define what it isn’t? Is it color? Or black and white? Grain or noise? Sex? Exoticism? And why am I so addicted to it? Why does it make me feel guilty? And similarly so satisfied?
Ultimately if I am not hurting anyone, does it matter?