One of the things which I struggle with in street photography is intrusion of privacy. Is it really OK to lift that camera and snap at whoever we want no matter what they are doing? When does it overstep the mark? On my recent trip to Asia, I spent hours shooting on the street. Most of the time I tried to be inconspicuous and discreet, but there were times when I stepped in close to get that shot. Those times my heart would quicken, but I had promised myself to be brave in pursuit of that shot. And you know, it paid off. I got some shots that I would never have gotten before. But in doing so I cannot help but feel that I overstepped the mark, that I intruded. However, in truth, there was only one occasion that a guy got a little upset with me and that in turn provided me with a great story I will write about here in the future.
The shots here are an example of street photography that I am a little uncomfortable with. In shooting street, it is easy to see everyone has a potential subject; everyone as game. But are they? Are there times when people in public situations are entitled to privacy. I tend to draw the line when it comes to children, homeless people or those who are evidently in distress. But everyone else? I think my instinct is to lift the camera and shoot.
On the recent trip, I encountered many people asleep in public places. Asleep they reveal so much. A tenderness and honesty is visible. The stress of the day rises and calms in their faces and for a few stolen moments they are freed. I have written before about how life in Asia is hard. People work long hours and spend ages commuting to and from work. Falling asleep in public is commonplace and accepted. Sitting opposite someone and observing them wake on train or bus is a beautiful thing. It takes the briefest of seconds for them to reacquaint themselves with their surroundings as they leave the refuge of sleep and return to the mundane reality of life. Watching them wake, I would often wait until our eyes met and greet them with a smile. Sometimes they would nod and smile in return and then we both would look away and the journey would continue. Looking back at the images I shot of people asleep I can recall such encounters. Little stories shared.
I never got the chance to show someone images of them asleep. I do not think they would like or appreciate it. I know I wouldn’t. Many months ago I was struck by Eric Kim‘s claim that street photographers fear of shooting on the street stems from their own fear of having their photograph taken. I think this is a case in point. I imagine I would feel a little violated if a stranger showed me photographs of me asleep in a public setting. Yet, then why do I think it is OK to take photographs of strangers I encounter asleep? I am not sure.
Entering the Seoul Museum of Modern Art I heard loud snores. Not having sufficient Korean to be able to comment on this to the lady in the ticket office I tried to mimic the snoring for her, but this resulted in her giving me the strangest of looks. Intrigued, I followed the snores and came across the guy below stretched out on this magical, golden sofa. His snores in this cavernous museum bellowing out. For a while, I just watched him. Peaceful and oblivious. Then I hoisted up the DSLR, checked my settings and shot. Got a few with the iPhone and off I went to look at the art in the museum, all the while accompanied by the rhythm of his snoring. A quite surreal experience. On the way, I met fellow visitors and again I communicated my amusement by mimicking his snoring and together we shared a few laughs. On a higher floor, I was able to get a wider shot of the guy with some people sat next to him.
As I left I could still hear the snoring. I will never know if he woke. Perhaps, he was an art installation, perhaps a wax model with the sounds of a snoring man played on a loop. I do not know. But for me, he was one of many people I encountered as I travelled who were asleep in public places and who just were too good not to shoot.
A fascinating read and, as a newbie to street photography, I too struggle with overstepping the mark and sometimes having the courage to take a photo of a random stranger, but more often than not my need for the photo overpowers my nerves.
I love the photos here, you don’t often see people fast asleep in public (well I don’t anyway). Brilliantly shot, I look forward to seeing more 🙂
Thanks Helen. Are you on FLickr – would love to see your work? It can be scary but trust your instincts. People sense honesty and respond well to it, I find.
Not on Flickr but I have a FB Page 🙂 http://www.facebook.com/helenbriggsphotography and on here obviously 🙂
Oh Brendan this strikes a cord with me, big time. I have discussed this issue with my photography teacher on multiple occasions and have picked the brains of many other photographers on the subject as well. Here in North America, I sometimes think that we are a little more sensitive about that issue. I recalled once asking Mimo Khair about it. She was saying that in Asia most people welcome the idea of being photographed. She also said that anywhere she has been in the world, she never had a problem doing it. I am sure her attitude as a lot to do with it.
Here the golden rule is that you never ever photograph a child without the parent’s consent. If you see a public gathering of some sort, you are free to photograph the participants as much as you please. Otherwise, you should get consent. I like Michael Kistler’s way of carrying his card and giving it to people.
I fully share your feelings about sleeping people, but I do love the shots you got here.
When I was in NYC, I actually got yield at by some man in a square. The funny thing is that I was just walking around and not shooting. I did yield back at him, telling him that he had no reason to be rude just because I am carrying a camera.
I love street photography, but I must admit, it is a real struggle for me. That’s why I do prefer to shoot people from the back.
Thanks Brendan, I truly enjoyed this one.
You know, Josee, it is only from writing this blog – listening to people’s reactions that I am beginning to understand it myself. I think the reason we shoot street is because we want to understand what we see and how we see it. Perhaps, without consciously choosing we select people who reflect who we are ourselves, in a way knowing how, if roles were reversed, we would react. Our sensitivity and instinct develops from this. It is about a connection for me, I think.
When I was in Asia one of the things that fascinated me was what these people I was seeing, what they saw, themselves, when they looked in their bathroom or hall mirror before leaving home. That and what was waiting for them in their fridge when they got home. Would they stand at it and eat standing up or take time to prepare a meal? Would there be noise or silence in their homes? Would their homes be bright or would the fridge light illuminate their whole dwelling? When they made eye contact with me, I began to imagine what they could be imagining of me; this white guy with a camera, and from that point I would join them and try to make myself out.
We are stories and we incessantly create them.
Fantastic capture, good for him and terrific blog.
I think this subject is so often revisited because at the conclusion of the discussion we arrive at an answer that we are not quite satisfied with but need to move on with life regardless. So the subject, unfulfilled and unresolved, simmers in our subconscious until we can revisit.
(As an aside: I think the priority rule regarding children is important to be cognizant of.)
Your presentation of Eric Kim’s idea that the fear of shooting on the street stems from their own fear of having their photograph taken may be the answer some of us, myself included, have been looking for. I think that may apply perfectly in my case.
I’ll let that simmer and let you know the next time we revisit this. 🙂
Excellent and thought provoking work Brendan. Well done.
Michael – as always thanks for your thoughtful response. I really do not know where I stand on the issue of privacy in street photography. Is everyone fair game?
Children definitely not or those who are vulnerable.
I put myself in the position of those I point at and shoot, and ya, I know for certain that at times, I would not like it. But how much of that is my willingness to get annoyed anyway. I guess it depends on the day and the circumstance. Sometimes, I might even be flattered if someone thought me interesting enough to photograph. Other times, I might want them to fuck the fuck off.
As a street photographer, it is trying to gauge that which is the challenge often. Most times, I try to make eye contact after the shot and smile and with a quick eyebrow raise I gesture my thanks. If I feel a connection, I offer to show them the photo. Have had lots of great conversations with people after this, especially in Japan.
WIll post a photograph from Japan where something opposite happened, but still resulted in a great story.
Again, thanks Michael.
Nothing at all wrong in photographing people asleep.
I actually have no problems at all these days about photographing anyone just so long as they are in a Public place.. the issue for me is its becoming difficult to know what is a public space and what is privately owned with a lot of these big organisations now owning the pavement areas, squares, courtyards etc.
I remember writing about photographing kids on the street a couple of years ago as at the time I felt it was something that wasn’t acceptable and was more likely to lead to difficulties and therefore I shied away from it, However with quite a few more years of ‘shooting street’ and with more confidence that I am not doing anyone any harm and in fact adding to the photographic history and social commentary of our current times I made the decision that if there were children in a scene I was shooting then it was ok to take, that was back in January and in the intervening time not one person has objected or complained or even asked what I was doing. Maybe times are changing and once again it becoming more acceptable..
I think the more I am out on the street, the more I realise that who I am really governs who I am drawn to and who I shoot. My instinct and eye has developed. I feel I am putting myself in their position – thinking if the camera was pointed at me in this instance how would I respond. Mostly, I feel with curiosity. In the places I have been, I have yet to have a really unpleasant encounter. In 5 weeks in Asia I had only one guy (an American street fashion photographer) who got angry with me for taking his photograph. Otherwise, all positive.