Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Being a Responsible Photographer

The modern notion of “the photographer” is completely different then the photographer from just 20 years ago. Before digital photography only a select few people had a camera (usually in the western world there was only one per family). However now almost everyone has a camera either on their phone, in their computer or a point and shoot stuck in their back pocket. There’s also a growing number of amateurs investing in better DSLR cameras who just shoot for fun. However, very few of these people would actually define themselves as “a photographer” and therefore do not think about the implications of taking a photograph. I spent 4 years studying aesthetic philosophy and the impact of taking a photograph. I don’t expect every person with a camera to do the same, but I do think it is every person’s responsibility to use common sense and think a little deeper about what being a photographer means.  I wish I could make it mandatory to read Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others before bringing a camera into the developing world with the intention of photographing people. Of course I have a long list of authors like Tremlett, Strauss, Renov and Barthes dealing with the somewhat esoteric concepts of the self and the other and the philosophy of representation, but I don’t expect the whole world to care about that as much as I do. However, I do expect the whole world to be respectful towards each other.  I've seen caring and intelligent people lose their common sense when they peer at the world behind a lens and it has to stop.

While I was in Rwanda I had an unsettling experience watching tourists photograph children. Unfortunately this wasn’t my first time seeing a situation like this happen, but this time I knew the perpetrators were generally respectful, kind and intelligent people. Most tourists with a camera don’t consider themselves “photographers,” but it does not make a difference if you’re shooting with a D3S or an iphone; to a child on the other side of the lens it is all the same. In On Photography Sontag talks about how the photographic safari is replacing the gun safari in East Africa. While I think this is great and highly support shooting pictures instead of guns this frenzied shutter-happy trigger finger has bled into all travel photography and tourists shoot away at locals the same way they’d shoot at a lion in the Masai Mara. There is nothing inherently wrong with photographing other cultures when you travel; it just has to be done respectfully, especially when a child is involved. I go by the rule that a photograph of a person should never be taken without permission. I wouldn’t want someone taking my photo without my permission and I actually experienced a lot of that firsthand while I was traveling alone in China.  I hated men coming up to me and taking my picture without asking so trust me when I say that it is not enjoyable, cute or funny. Often when I travel there is a language barrier, but so much can be communicated non-verbally. Obviously if you are a professional photographer you need to speak with the person to get a photo release or if you’re a photojournalist you are documenting news so this doesn’t apply to you as much though I hope as a professional you are as respectful as you can be.

When I am photographing someone I always make eye contact first and smile. If I receive a positive reaction I lift my camera and judge the reaction to that to see if it is all right to take a picture. If I get an angry or shy reaction I immediately put down the camera and either try to speak more with the subject or smile, say thank you, and politely leave. Try to see it this way- do you want a beautiful intimate portrait of a person with mutual respect or do you want a portrait of a screaming child visibly terrified of you? Trust me the first option is a better picture. I have seen people attack children with their cameras flashing away at their eyes while they are visibly frightened and even crying. Trust me- that photograph is not going to morph into a beautiful Steve McCurry NatGeo photograph. That photo is going to be a horrible photo of a screaming child that you will probably delete or will get lost in the recesses of your hard drive.

As a young kid I idolized the photographs in National Geographic and then in my teens I became obsessed with Diane Arbus’ work. Arbus was famous for relating to and understanding her subjects. Her beautiful intimate portraits look the way the do because of mutual respect. One theory on her suicide in '71 is because she felt so depressed over images she took at an insane asylum because she felt the subject was taken advantage of because they couldn’t participate in the photographer-subject relationship.

The UN actually gives guidelines to photographers regarding the photographing of children, but these guidelines are really more about the ethical implications of representing the child after the photograph is taken. While I believe that is extremely important and was a big part of my studies, I think it is really only applicable to professional photographers distributing their photographs publicly. I think the UN should make guidelines for anyone with a camera listing basic respectful behavior when photographing. These may seem really obvious, but the camera has a magical property to make you feel like you’ve disappeared behind your lens and when this transformative property occurs common sense too often disappears too.

Do not photograph a person if their face is identifiable without their permission.


Permission can be non-verbal, but watch body language and don’t delude yourself into thinking you have permission when you do not.


If a child looks scared or starts to cry while photographing STOP. Put the camera down and assess the situation. You can try and show the child the camera is not dangerous and make him or her smile. If the child is still in distress thank him or her and leave.


Do not use flash in a dark room (or at night) around small children. It can hurt their eyes. Never use flash without asking someone especially in remote places where people may have not seen a flash before. Flash it on the ground or on yourself first to show it is not dangerous.


If a child is begging for money to do not take his or her photograph. You do not want to perpetuate a begging/photograph/payment system.


Try and connect with your subject it will make for a better photograph.


Use common sense. At the end of the day every photographer, subject and situation is different, but use your head and try and think how you would feel if the situation was reversed.

I hope these simple guidelines help.  Please feel free to post others in the comments section. If you have any questions about the ethics of photography or want suggestions on further reading leave me a comment or send me an email and I’d be happy to suggest a few.  Please don't comment and tell me these guidelines are impossible for taking good pictures, because I know they are not.  Below are some of my favorite photographs I've taken from my travels of children all around the world all taken respectfully using the above guidelines.

RYALE_UNICEF_253
RYALE_UNICEF_91
RYALE_UNICEF_85
RYALE_UNICEF_105
RYALE_UNICEF_138
Panama_Safari-32
Panama_Safari-20
Panama_Safari-109
Panama_Safari-35
Panama_Safari-43
Panama_Safari-26
RYALE_Fatehpur_Sikri_19
RYALE_New_Delhi_88
RYALE_Elephant_Village-116

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