Monday, December 23, 2019

Photographing People

(I just noticed, as I was taking a twitter break from tinkering with this, that Jörg Colberg has published a remarkably similar piece, which astonished me. Where we disagree substantively: he treats consent as a hard line which Must Not Be Crossed, not recognizing that consent itself is fairly squishy.)

There is a depressing trend in Serious Photography to not photograph people. How broadly based it is I cannot say, but I know that serious people who are taken seriously say things that point away from photographing people.

There are reasons, and the reasons are not bad. It is possible, even common, to take photographs which represent people poorly. We can, I dare say, think of many photographs past and present which present a person as odious in some way. There is, however, at least one more layer here, in that a viewer might tend to see a photograph that way. The academics I am thinking of are firm followers of the "Everything is Problematic" ideology, and therefore tend to see representations in a negative light. They are looking for Problems and lo, they find Problems. They might look at Migrant Mother and see poverty and shame, but miss the essential nobility and strength of Florence Thompson.

I am confident also, though, that this self-same trend seeks to provide covering fire for an unwillingness to deal socially with the subjects of study. Some of these people are, or have students who are, socially uncomfortable. How much easier is it, after all, to make a Serious Essay about poverty by photographing the things possessed by the very poor without actually having to talk to any poor people!

Orson Scott Card, a science fiction author who writes not very good books devised the notion of a Speaker for the Dead. This is a notional funeral ritual, in which rather than a religious figure or a community figure delivering a eulogy, a hired Speaker does that work. The Speaker arrives some time before the ceremony, with enough time to research, and the end result is, notionally, something resembling the complete unvarnished Truth of the deceased.

The concept is a bit of a stretcher, to be honest, but the essential idea is that a person's true and complete story constitutes a kind of redemption. If we can understand how they came to do the things they did, both bad and good, we can better honor them in our memory. We may find forgiveness, or censure, where we did not expect it. This is the opposite of the conventional wisdom, which is that we ought to as best we can sweep unsightly detail under the rug and replace our view of the deceased with a sort of simplified and rosy picture of them.

In the same way, I think that (mostly) a truthful photograph of a person will tend to honor and redeem them, rather than to do them harm. To photograph them truthfully, to tell their truthful story, has the potential to be a greater good than to sweep their story underneath a rug by either not telling it at all, or by telling it without their presence.

Taking that photograph, those photographs, is difficult and not entirely reliable. Even if perfectly done, it can still be misread.

This is a photograph of my friend, Steve, who is homeless and an alcoholic. I believe that it tells the truth about Steve, and that it honors him by doing so. There are surely those who would decry this photograph as invasive, abusive, exploitative. Steve was pretty drunk when I took it, so it would be pretty hard to claim that he gave informed and binding consent.

Contemporary practice suggests that I should have photographed, empty, the corner where he panhandles. His bedroll and other belongings. Perhaps I could have crept into the bushes and photographed the place where he sleeps. His arrest records would be a nice document to include. Perhaps even some medical records. I could avoid exploiting Steve by invading his privacy in a half dozen other ways.

Or, alternatively, I could simply slip aside to safer subjects rather than risk the wrath of the establishment for my middle-class gaze.

At this point it seems appropriate to point you to Small Town Inertia, a project by a Jim Mortram, who appears to be a unabashedly an English Bloke, and who does Steve only a million times better. To be fair, there are parts of the establishment that adore Jim, but they still shy away from his methods. I keep meaning to write something more serious on the subject of his work (starting with: go look at more of it carefully) but that's still in the future.

If the Serious Photography establishment wishes to ever leave the world in which their favorite Important. Necessary books sell 300 copies, they would do well to reconsider their methods. Perhaps returning to a focus on people could be helpful, here.


  1. "Small Town Inertia": Disturbing, unsettling. Not the kind of photos I want to look at, and certainly not the kind of photos I want to make. I wonder if such projects can encourage social reform, the way that some landscape photographers have encouraged environmental conservation. But what kind of social reform, and how can this project motivate it? I suspect most viewers will conclude that the people depicted in this project have chosen their fate.

    1. Given that the first guy is diagnosed as schizophrenic and the second guy lost his sight in a freak accident, the "they chose their fate" idea would require a remarkable degree of inattention.

      Certainly there are people who glance at pictures of poor people and drag out their stock "poor people are just lazy, or stupid" response and move on. This is a form of inattention.

      Fuck those people.

    2. Correct, though I might not be so harsh. Sometimes people turn away because they are bombarded by bad news and tales of human misery every day.I just started reading the photo-essay book "Dignity" by Chris Arnade and hope I'll be able to recommend it.

    3. As a photographer and as a critic, it *is* important to be able to imagine, to some extent, how other people will see the work, so I suppose I was a bit harsh.

      Still, I think Small Town Inertia does a decent job of making it hard to view it as "dumb poors making dumb mistakes."

      Also, it's not poverty porn, it's poverty erotica.

    4. I'm some way into "Dignity" by Chris Arnade and I can recommend it. I don't agree with all of the author's opinions of course, but he does make the reader look and think again about his subjects--as real people. When you do look and think,the questions do not resolve but only appear more damnably complicated and perhaps intractable.

  2. The two best examples of this style in Britain that spring to mind (and are available in book form) are Richard Billingham's work with his own family and community in "Ray's a Laugh", and Nick Waplington's "Living Room". Both classics of the genre.