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.
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.