Can I/Should I – The ethics of street photography – part 2

Welcome back!   I hope you found part one of the series interesting and that my post didn’t inspire any bouts of paranoia.  If you made it though the week without keeping your drapes closed the whole time, I think you’ll be okay.

Before I get going this week, I want to recap last week’s post:

  • It is probably legal to photograph someone without their knowledge so long as you are on public property or have permission to be on private property
  • This right is based on the US Bill of Rights

So then, if last week was about the legalities, today I want to write more about the ethics but rather than give you hard and fast rules, I’ll just share my opinions and suggest that you draw your own lines in the sand because after all, YOU need to be comfortable with what you are shooting and own up to your own choices.

First I want to get back to a part of the original question that I completely ignored last week – namely do our responsibilities change if our subject is underage.   I don’t think there are many set rules here though you have to understand, that I approach the subject from a fairly conservative point of view.  That said, I do think that there is a difference between shooting adults and minors BUT I do not think that photographers need to completely avoid photographing children – I just think that context and common sense needs to play a role.

Before I go any further, I want to introduce you to the work of Sally Mann.  Mann is an established American fine art photographer.  She began working in the 1970s and 80s when she was a young mother.  To date, she has created a solid body of work but still she is largely known best for one of her original series depicting her children growing up in rural Virginia.  She photographed her kids doing regular kid things but that isn’t to say that she complete sat back and made candid portraits because by her own account, she did sometimes actively pose her children to achieve a certain look that she had in mind (see image 15 in the series for example).  You can check out this series at http://sallymann.com/selected-works/family-pictures (Her work is often NSFW- this series does contain child nudity and the Body Farm series was created at the UT-Knoxville Forensic Anthropology Center’s research facility so the images are of actual dead, decomposing bodies).

Unfortunately I don’t remember the details, but I saw an exhibition of her work a few years back in Chicago.  The exhibition included quotes from the now adult children – two of the three seemed perfectly fine with the widely published series while the third was a bit uncomfortable with it.  It’s worth noting that she waited until the children were older before she published the book and she reportedly gave the children veto power or the inclusion of any photo in the book.

So what do you think of the series?  And did you look at any of her other work while you were there?  How do you think it compares to Svenson’s The Neighbors?  Does it matter that it Mann made those images as their mother?  Would it have been different if it had been their father?  Certainly and regardless of how you answered the previous questions, we can all agree that if those images had been created by a photographer unbeknownst to the children and their family that an obvious line would have been crossed.

Here’s an example of street photography – when I lived in Kentucky, I was at a public park on a warm summer day making photos for one of my earliest photography classes and saw some children playing in the fountain.  They were having a great time playing and I discretely photographed them from a distance.   Was that crossing a line?  I don’t think so for several reasons.  First is intent.  My only goal was to capture some street photography to hone my skills.  Second is that I was in a public park and the family had no expectation of privacy.  Had the children been playing in a sprinkler in their back yard that would have been another thing all together but because they were on a busy street corner, I believe it was fine.  Third, I was unobtrusive.  Had I chosen to get close and photograph them with a wide angle lens instead of from a distance, I might have crossed the line.  Might being the key word because it would depend on the adults caring for the children.  When doing street photography of children, I think it is important to respect the wishes of the people responsible for the children.  If they don’t have a problem with the photography, then great but if they do, I think it is important to respect their wishes and move on.  And last but far from least, I did not photograph the children in a way that would be construed as compromising.

Kids playing in the fountain

Kids playing in the fountain at Broadway and Main in downtown Lexington, KY.

So is that so different for adults?  Yes and no.  Certainly I think that adults also have the right to ask you not to photograph them and unless you have a compelling reason to continue photographing, it might well be best to move on to a new subject.  The biggest difference I think is that we (as a society) need to look out for the interests of little ones because they are not mature enough to make those kinds of decisions on their own and we can’t necessarily assume that they are with a guardian to look out for their best interests.   The bottom line is that I think it is more important to err on the side of caution when photographing minors.

Before I wrap it up for the week, I want to at acknowledge a related issue that I touched on last week, namely what  Judge Rakower wrote in her decision in favor of Svenson:

An artist may create and sell a work of art that resembles an individual without his or her written consent.

I think that has the potential to be a sticking point for some people.  After all, why wouldn’t someone be entitled to compensation if someone else was going to make money off of their likeness?  Unfortunately, I don’t really have a good answer for you except to say that is the way that fine art has traditionally worked.  Commercial work (think advertising) requires a legal contract (a model release) and oftentimes includes compensation but other genres of photography follow the model of the art forms that predated the technique.  That isn’t to say that money or other valuable compensation is never a part of the equation, just that it isn’t a necessary part of the equation.

Now that you’ve had some time to think about the work of these three artists, I’ll chime in with my own opinions.  While I wouldn’t have wanted to have been included in Svenson’s series, I think that he was very, very careful to show his neighbors in real life moments yet, importantly, he worked to obscure their identities and he did not (at least in the images I’ve seen) depict his neighbors in a compromising manner.  As such, I think he came right up to the line but didn’t cross it.  Calle’s series in the hotel rooms and where she followed around her subjects without their knowledge pushed that line a bit farther but like Svenson, she did not depict her subjects in a compromising manner.  I have a harder time with Mann’s work (and believe me, I’m not alone here).  I do believe that she mostly just documented her children’s lives as they lived them in the rural Virginia towns.  I also think that the nude photographs are fine for a personal series but I would never have published the book or exhibited the photographs.  Reportedly she obtained legal counsel prior to publishing the book because she was worried that some images could be construed as pornographic.  While I wouldn’t say any of the images I’ve seen from the series crossed that line, I think the fact that she needed to ask prior to publication meant that they should not have been used in such a public way.

I think I’ll leave it there for the week.  Check back next week when I’ll discuss things you might consider when composing your landscape photographs.

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Can I/Should I – Musings on the ethics of making a photograph – part 1

I was recently asked to discuss my thoughts on the ethics of street photography and if I thought there was any ethical difference between shooting adults and children.  It’s an important topic so I thought I’d take the opportunity to address it in this format.  Of course, it is important to note that I am a photographer and I lecture about issues that artists face to my students however I am neither an attorney nor am I an ethicist.  I do however have an interest in the subject and follow cases that I believe are relevant to my work and to my students so I believe I come to the topic with an informed opinion.  It is also important to note that I’m writing today mostly about what I’d consider to be personal and fine art work.  Certainly these topics are important to photojournalists, editorial, and commercial photographers too but those professions have additional considerations that further complicate the discussion and are best left for another time.

So then, in its most common form, the question I hear most often is this:  Is it okay to photograph people without their knowledge and/or consent?

It may surprise you that our Founding Fathers set the stage for the answer especially considering that the first photograph wasn’t created until 1839 – nearly half a century after James Madison introduced the Bill of Rights to the House of Representatives.  Oh, and while we are on the topic of the Founding Fathers – they set the stage for copyright too which is an essential right allowing photographers to actually earn money from the sale of their work.  Anyway, back to the Bill of Rights – the First Amendment states:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
-http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/bill_of_rights_transcript.html, accessed 8/14/14

That’s it.  That one sentence sets the stage for so many things.  The relevant part for today’s discussion is that we have a VERY STRONG freedom of speech in the United States and that freedom extends beyond written or verbal speech to pretty much any form of expression, including – you guessed it – artistic expression.

So then why are photographers increasingly coming under suspicion?

I think the answer to that question comes down to a few things.

First, at some point, political correctness became a factor.  It seems to me that I became aware of people trying to be politically correct sometime in the late 1980s, which, given that I was a teenager then, probably means it was around long before then and I only just noticed.  In any case, I believe that we (as a society) started to worry a bit too much about saying wrong things so that we would not to offend anyone.  Given our track record on civil rights, that’s not generally a bad thing and frankly, some of us still have a way to go before we get it right.  But the downside is that we (again, as a society) seem to have lost the willingness to call a spade a spade for fear of offending someone.  That fear makes us more hesitant in our day to day lives so we think twice about making photographs that we think someone might take offense to even if we have no intention of doing anything that would be offensive with the image.

Second, and this is a big one, on September 11, 2001, a group of terrorists changed our culture in a profound and lasting way.  I remember hearing speeches after the attack that we need to go on with our lives as they were otherwise the terrorists will have won.  Well, if that’s the definition of a win for the terrorists, then 13 years later I think we can say for certain that they did win.  Our lives changed.  We became a little more afraid and suspicious.  Before 9/11, if a photographer set up a tripod and started taking photographs of a skyscraper, a bridge, a power plant, etc., and if questioned about it, the photographer responded that they were working on a project, then that would be that.  Today that person is often viewed as a potential terrorist scouting their next potential target.  And if that person happens not to be Caucasian, well then – time to call the police.

To recap then:

  • The Founding Fathers set the stage for vast personal freedoms
  • Times changed and we are living in a time of general unease
  • The relevant laws about photography have not changed

I’ll provide some examples that I think are interesting (though I’m admittedly an academic sort of photo geek) and relevant below but I want to clarify what we are legally allowed to photograph.  This is a good rule of thumb – if you have permission to legally STAND somewhere, then you have permission to take photographs.  This includes all public property, so photographing people at parks for example, is definitely permitted.  You also have the right to make photographs on private property assuming that the property owner gives you permission.  Practically speaking, that means you can probably take pictures in privately owned places so long as you are welcome there however those owners have the right to say no (think about every time you’ve been told that you can’t take a photo at a concert for example).   The lines blur a bit here and there but by and large, if you keep these in mind, then it is probably fine to use your camera (or video recording device).

Now counter that with a person’s right to privacy.  Sometimes this is obvious (you don’t photograph people in changing rooms for example) but other times it seems utterly confusing.  For example, is it okay to photograph someone in their home through their windows?  Surely that seems like a definite NO.  Certainly I wouldn’t want anyone photographing me without my knowledge while I’m in my home.  But now think about things you’ve seen on TV or in the movies (because obviously they ALWAYS show only the realistic) – have you ever seen a show where a private detective takes photos to prove infidelity on behalf of his or her client?  How did that seem you you?  A bit invasive, definitely.  Illegal?  Probably not otherwise those photos could never be used as part of legal (divorce) proceedings.  So then, if that’s okay, what about taking photos of people in their homes as part of a fine art project?

Along those lines, I’ll share with you the work of Arne Svenson.  He is a New York based fine art photographer and he created a series entitled The Neighbors where he photographed, you guessed it, his neighbors through their windows.  Because he lives in Manhattan and his neighbors live in highrise buildings, the expectation is that they wouldn’t necessarily know each other.  He certainly didn’t ask them if it would be okay for him to photograph them as they went about their lives using a telephoto lens from his own apartment.  Once he decided his body of work was sufficient, he reached out to a local gallery, made the proper arrangements, and held an exhibition of his work.  Being that it was a local gallery, his neighbors learned about the project and were upset.  What do you think?  Look at the photos on his website  (there isn’t anything  NSFW in The Neighbors gallery).  It turns out that the neighbors were upset enough to pursue legal options.  How do you think that turned out?  Well, according to judge Eileen A Rakower, Svenson’s neighbors’ suit had no merit because the body of work was protected by Svenson’s First Amendment right to free speech.  In her decision, Judge Rakower wrote:

An artist may create and sell a work of art that resembles an individual without his or her written consent.

I bet you didn’t see that one coming.

And it’s not just Americans that enjoy this artistic freedom.  He’s an example from France dating back to 1981.  Sophie Calle is what I would call a conceptual artist (she’s also an art professor) – that is, in her art, the IDEA is at least as important as the final art work.  That might not be strong enough – for conceptual artists, the idea itself oftentimes IS the art.  Anyhoo, in this particular series, she obtained a job at a hotel as a maid so that she could photograph and catalog the visitors’ belongings as they left it before she did her cleaning.  Check out an example of her work here:  Room 47.  I’ll bet that her former employer NOW has a clause in their hiring contract forbidding employees to photograph their guests’ belongings but it probably never occurred to them that it was necessary before they hired Calle.  So the project was probably legal.  Sophie Calle actually created a number of projects that you might find interesting along these lines and I encourage you to read more about her work.   You might especially want to check out this article which describes how she followed, photographed, and made notes about strangers as they went about their daily lives.

So hopefully you’ll agree that if these two invasive artists’ projects are legal, that pretty much all street photography is probably legal too.  I’ll leave it here for the week to give you time to ponder these examples.  Next week I’ll provide another few examples and discuss some of the ethical considerations.

 

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What is that growing out of her head?

One of the best things that a photographer can do to give their images more impact is to consider their composition.  This can come in many, many forms but I don’t want to overwhelm so I’ll take them one at a time.  Today’s topic is related to one I’ve discussed in the past – simplifying the background.  Spring helped me when I last wrote about backgrounds and she’s back today for this easy lesson.

Mind your background - don't let things 'grow' out of your subject's head.

Mind your background – don’t let things ‘grow’ out of your subject’s head.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Have you ever looked at a picture and noticed that a tree or pole seems to be growing out of a person’s head?  Take this portrait of Spring for example.  I’ve exaggerated it here by putting Spring and the plant on a white seamless paper but I wanted to emphasize the point.  As I’ve mentioned before, just a slight shift in perspective can make a big difference.

See - much better.  This is a portrait of a dog and a plant rather than one mutant combo of both.

See – much better. This is a portrait of a dog and a plant rather than one mutant combo of both.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So I know what you’re thinking – I could always just shoot away now and use the magic later to fix it in post.  And you’re right!  But consider this – each of these two photos was created a 1/160 second exposure taken, maybe if I was being really slow, five minutes apart so we are talking about a total of 5 minutes and 1/80th of a second elapsed time.  In order to edit the first photo to have a clean white background, I’d spend at least fifteen minutes to do a convincing job of it.  And that even takes into consideration that I’m an Adobe Certified Expert with Photoshop.  How much longer might it take someone with less experience?  Now consider then that I might make 20, 50, or more images in a session and we are talking a BIG time commitment.  Believe me when I tell you that there are much better things that you could be doing with your time even if that something else is just relaxing, reading a book, watching television, having a conversation with your friend, and more.

The bottom line then?  It might not always be practical to change your perspective or you might simply not have noticed a distracting background element, but when you do notice and can do something about it, then make that adjustment.  Your photos will be much stronger for that little bit of extra effort.

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Custom paw prints

I’ll be teaching two classes this fall for Washington State University so I’ll have a lot less free time starting in a couple weeks.  Watching the start of the semester sneak up meant that I needed to get some projects done around the house while I still had some time.  One project was redecorating one of the rooms in our house.  I started the usual way by painting the walls then I moved on to removing the carpet, repairing, and prepping the concrete floor.  Next was painting the floor and adding some subtle paw prints for a bit of visual interest.  To know Spring, is to know that she ALWAYS wants to be where ever I am so it’s fitting that I used her feet as my template.

I wouldn’t exactly call this an easy project because of all of the time I spent on my hands and knees but making the prints was pretty straight forward.  I started by having Spring stand on a flatbed scanner – two passes seemed to work best so that just her front or back feet were on the scanner at a time.  Once scanned, using Photoshop I created a basic drawing around each of her pads and claws and printed them on a piece of paper.  The print was used as a template for cutting out the stencils from a sheet of transparency film (the regular old office store variety) with an X-Acto knife.  That might have been the most difficult part of the (paw print) project.  I chose one of those cheap sponge brushes to dab on the paint to give a little texture to each print.  The best part of it is that if you’ve ever looked at wet paw prints on the floor, you know that they are not perfect – meaning that I didn’t have to worry if the template slipped a bit when I applied the paint because those imperfections made it look more normal.

This is the evolution of the paw print project.

This is the evolution of the paw print project. Click on the image to see a larger version.

It’s funny how we grow.  We never would have considered adding such a lasting custom design in our first house (never mind that it is just paint and it can always be repainted).  Today this is just one of the many custom art and craft projects that Robin and I have done since we bought our current home.  Maybe that means we knew on some level that our previous houses (and cities we lived in) were not our final destinations.  Maybe it’s that we don’t have a lot of wall space for hanging our art and this is just another way to make our house feel like home.  What ever the reason, we are enjoying the results and I hope you do too.

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Photoshop is basically magic

You all know that magic can be used for good or for bad.  Photoshop is pretty much like that too.  Read on for examples of good, or check out sites like this if you want to see how Photoshop can be used for bad.

In her comment, Lisa expressed some surprised that this photo of Alice wasn’t Photoshopped.  Well, that’s not exactly right.

Alice the cat

Alice the cat

When I wrote about Alice, I was talking about how flash can be used to darken the background and not about how the final image was prepared.  There is definitely more to the story.

First, I want to point out that EVERY image I share has some amount of post-processing done to it – using a mix of Lightroom and Photoshop.  I’ll talk more about that some other time.  Today I want to set the stage by explaining that when I make a photo, I start with a RAW file from the camera.  That is, the digital file is the equivalent of a negative in olden times.  Sure the exposure was recorded in a way that can lead to it becoming a photograph, but it isn’t something that can be used as is.  That’s opposed to a JPEG file – if your camera records that kind of image, then that is all ready to go just as soon as you download that file from your memory card.

Okay, to recap then, a JPEG (or JPG) file is ready to use but a RAW file needs to be processed in order for it to be used in any way other than in specialty software (like Photoshop).

The question then is, what happens during the processing?  Well, other than converting it to a file format that is universally recognized, I do the same kinds of things that photographers have been doing pretty much from the start (well, after Joseph Nicéphore Niépce’s first ever recorded image).  I adjust exposure (dodge & burn), adjust color, adjust contrast, and I sharpen the image.  I might also remove some distractions from image – typically small things like leashes, eye boogers, etc. (remember – simplify the background), and of course, I add a logo.  That’s it.

I’ll wrap it up with some before and after examples.

In this photo, you can see I added contrast to the overall image (look at her face in both) which effectively brought the background to black.  Also I removed that edge of the box she was sitting in to make it match the rest of the background.  Note:  the flash technique didn't work on that part because the outside of the box was on the same plane as her face therefore it had the same amount of flash illumination as Alice.

In this photo, you can see I added contrast to the overall image (look at her face in both) which effectively brought the background to black. Also I removed that edge of the box she was sitting in to make it match the rest of the background. Note: the flash technique didn’t work on that part because the outside of the box was on the same plane as her face therefore it had the same amount of flash illumination as Alice.

In this portrait of Spud, I removed the leash, added some contrast and saturation, and touched up some of the dirt on his face.

In this portrait of Spud, I removed the leash, added some contrast and saturation, and touched up some of the dirt on his face.

I know what you're thinking with this last example - what the heck?  That before is a HORRIBLE exposure.  And to that I reply, not so - because I know how to use the magic.  When you have an image with high contrast (like a dog with black and white fur sitting in the sun (as opposed to Spud in the previous example sitting in the shade), you have to make some adjustments to protect the highlights from getting clipped.  In this capture, I under exposed the overall image so that Misty's white fur would have good detail.  Because I use a RAW file, I was easily able to bring up the exposure of the image everywhere except in the white fur so that I could have the best of both worlds.  I also removed the leash, touched up her face, added some contrast, and some saturation.  To be clear, you can do some of these kinds of edits with a JPEG file too but it won't give nearly the same result due to the relative lack of information present in the file when compared to the information present in a RAW file.

I know what you’re thinking with this last example – what the heck? That before is a HORRIBLE exposure. And to that I reply, not so – because I know how to use the magic. When you have an image with high contrast (like a dog with black and white fur sitting in the sun (as opposed to Spud in the previous example sitting in the shade), you have to make some adjustments to protect the highlights from getting clipped. In this capture, I under exposed the overall image so that Misty’s white fur would have good detail. Because I use a RAW file, I was easily able to bring up the exposure of the image everywhere except in the white fur so that I could have the best of both worlds. I also removed the leash, touched up her face, added some contrast, and some saturation. To be clear, you can do some of these kinds of edits with a JPEG file too but it won’t give nearly the same result due to the relative lack of information present in the file when compared to the information present in a RAW file.

So there you have it.  I Photoshop my images.  Sometimes a little, sometimes a lot.

One last tidbit for you – I can do this because I am not a photojournalist.  In photojournalism, it is generally okay to make basic corrections (like exposure, contrast, and saturation) just as they used to do in the film days but it is absolutely unacceptable to remove distracting elements from the backgrounds.  Even something like removing the leash would be a career ending mistake.

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