Street Ethics :: Costs :: Social Exchanges

My wife was recently at an event and in desperate need of a cup of coffee. Before she ran a few doors up to the coffee shop, she asked if anyone else wanted anything. She got one taker who ordered some floofy espresso drink. When my wife returned with the coffee, the other person said thanks, took the coffee, and walked off, never asking how much the drink was or offering to pay.

My wife couldn’t care less about a few bucks for a cup of coffee, and would have declined any payment offered, but she wasn’t given the choice. Why does being given a choice matter, especially if one would decline the offer anyway? Why might it be important to say, “I just made an image of you, is that okay? Or would you like me to delete it?”

One explanation, perhaps, comes from evolutionary psychology. The offer to grab a cup of coffee for someone is an overture of social exchange, a potential opportunity for “cooperation between two or more individuals for mutual benefit” [Cosmides and Tooby]. In the old days — you know, a few millennia back — I might have caught a springbok one day, far more than I could eat, and offered to share it with you in the hope that, if in the future you caught a springbok, you would do the same for me.

Our sense of fairness, our willingness to trust, has evolved in the context of these multi-round, cooperative “games”. Today we exchange mocha lattes from Starbucks instead of palmfuls of steaming liver, but the gesture is the same. And while we might say, “We’re all friends here. Nobody’s keeping score,” in the back of our minds, … we’re keeping score. In a hunter/gatherer’s world the poor bugger that’s an easy mark, that would give away valuable fresh meat to someone who was unlikely to reciprocate in the future, wouldn’t often live very long. He probably wouldn’t be all that successful reproductively either. Why wouldn’t his mate just go hang out with the guy he kept giving her dinner away to? The result is that we’re highly tuned to fairness and trust. Our lives would have once depended on them, … and still can.

The offer of payment, even if one suspects it will be declined, is an acknowledgment of this social exchange, a confirmation that one’s aware of the trust being placed in them, a signal that we’re willing to reciprocate. An ongoing series of reciprocated lattes, or whatever else one wants to exchange, strengthens interpersonal bonds and builds trust over time. The problem with many street photos from this perspective, is that we’ve taken something from our subjects without any suggestion, and often without any intention, that we’ll give anything back, that we’ll reciprocate. We’ve broken that social bond before it even had a chance to form by making it obvious, with our very first interaction, that we have no intention of working to create a cooperative, mutually beneficial, trusting relationship. There can be a direct emotional cost at the perceived unfairness of this, and rightly so. But I suspect there’s also a deeper societal cost that results from this breaching of trust. Such actions tend to splinter rather than heal, tend to make our subjects (and other bystanders) less likely to give a stranger the benefit of the doubt in the future. This harms us all.

In many cases, these social exchanges are fairly explicit and the stakes fairly low: “I’ll front you a cup of coffee as a trust building gesture, and all I’m out if you renege is a cup of coffee.” There’s often also the consolation that even if I lose that cup of coffee, I’ve likely gained a valuable insight into who you are as a person. But, in general, social exchanges can be both more implicit and, at the same time, burdened with far greater stakes. The gesture might not be a cup of coffee, but, instead, that “I won’t discriminate against you based on your religious beliefs” in the expectation that in the future “You won’t discriminate against me based on the color of my skin or my sexual orientation.” We as a society often fail routinely on both sides of equations such as these, with each failure chipping away at mutual trust, respect, and understanding.

Perhaps this is the reason that we often feel the gravest reservations about photographing members of marginalized groups — those who have historically been shorted in these social exchanges. The white male who appears dressed in the trappings of success? We associate him with a position of power — with someone who has likely not spent their life on the short end of such deals. Women, however, have historically faired a bit worse. One in four female students will be raped while in college, for example. Let’s set aside for the moment the immense breach of trust and respect this is in the first place, or the lifetime of emotional consequences it will have, and think for a second about the implications of the fact that fewer than 10% of those victims will report the assault. Think about what that implies about these young women’s perception (not incorrectly) of our society’s social fabric and the expected return on their investment in a typical social exchange. They’re not willing to reach out and say that this terribly horrific thing has happened to me, something so bad that it should result in the perpetrator spending the next decade or two behind bars; they’re not willing to trust their classmates, their school, their city, their community to handle the situation appropriately, to punish the perpetrator rather than the victim.

Many other marginalized groups have faired no better. For those among us who have already had their trust broken, who have stuck their necks out at great consequence, should we not refrain from expecting them to suffer yet another, even small, injustice at our hands?

I realize we’ve gone someplace a bit dark. We’re just talking about making a few images on the street, right? Yea, but this may be what informs the emotional response some folks have to that. And it’s not to say that there isn’t a case to be made that there may be benefits to street photography. Images can help us understand who others are and how they experience the world around them. This can help us empathize, help us strengthen bonds, and help us more actively reach out to each other to build bridges. We’ll explore some of these potential benefits in later posts. But it may be worth being aware of how some of our actions may be perceived.

Diversity. Boulder County Fair, Longmont, Colorado.

Diversity. Boulder County Fair, Longmont, Colorado.

Brent DanielComment