Street Ethics :: Costs :: Exploitation 2

Let me, first, tell a little story …

I don’t know San Jose well. I’ve only been once. It was beautiful then, though. A week in early spring when all the little green leaves were nascently unfurled, the crisp, bright sunlight nearly glistening off them. I stayed at a place along the rail line a few miles north of downtown and, in the late afternoon each day, would spend ten or fifteen minutes jostling gently on the train as it made its way south through Japantown and St. James Park. I shared the train with businessmen in suits; young college students with narrow-legged jeans, too young to have been scarred by the fashion missteps of the eighties; and a gentlemen who slumped against the window, a few extra layers bundled around his shoulders as the nights would still be quite cool.

I got off at Santa Clara Station — little more than a raised platform on the Second Street sidewalk. No plan. Eyes for the sake of beauty; ears for the sounds of the city; wandering loosely after my curiosity. I made a picture of a couple sitting at a sidewalk bar, their chihuahua on the table between them, barely bigger than their pint glasses. It would have made the image if he’d taken a lick of the Belgian style, but alas... I gave him a scratch between his ears after letting him sniff me and thanked them for the image.

Down a small alleyway alien giraffes with antennae peered down from the building walls. A left on First and I passed a woman with a grocery cart. She cooed at me, unintelligible sounds, miming for a cigarette. I don’t smoke, but kind of wished I did, just to be able to let her bum one. I pondered the ethics of giving someone a guilty pleasure you knew could hurt them. Lung cancer thirty-years down the line, though, probably isn’t your gravest concern if you’re mute and living on the street.

Just beyond, pandas danced on a garden wall. Well, some did. Others served hamburgers, one played guitar. Not literally, of course, but in the mural artist’s imagination, and now in mine. Behind the wall, rows of bamboo grew toward the sun. Shafts of light streamed through, patterning the sidewalk. Beneath the shafts of sun, a man with a pudgy, boyish face and close-cropped, blond hair like a military vet might wear lay on a bench. His clothes were festive, though, brightly patterned pants and shirt, a stylish vest. He wore bangles on one wrist and shoes of mismatched colors. One hand was tucked between his knees for warmth, the other folded beneath his head. His eyes were tightly closed, brow deeply furrowed. I wondered what dreams he dreamed, what curious and crooked path had led him to this bench, to doze under a garden wall of happy, unconcerned pandas.

I ate at a sushi bar near the hotel that evening, taking a few pictures of the sushi chef as he worked, sipping through a couple of Asahis while enjoying the textures and sensations of the nigiri, the ginger, the wasabi. After dinner I went back to the room to download the few pictures I’d taken.

Now, let me ask a question. Have I exploited anyone — not by anything I’ve done within the story — but by telling the story? Does describing a few of the interesting souls I met along the way exploit them? Just for comparison’s sake, I took a photograph. Is it exploitative?

Unconcerned Pandas. First Street, San Jose, California.

See, I’m wondering whether there’s anything we can learn about the roots of exploitation in street/travel photography by drawing a comparison with this other form of art, because, though, I feel like the image might be exploitative, I don’t have that feeling about the story. Yet, logically that doesn’t seem to make sense. In the paragraphs above, the written descriptions are based on the same information used to create the photograph. In both instances visual information about the world was acquired, translated into the medium of choice (with the help of some electronics in both cases), and shared with any interested consumers of those works.

Quite generally, writers must necessarily be keen observers and conveyers of the human experience: what we feel, how we express ourselves, both physically and verbally, how we interact with one another, how we look. Stories, characters, and dialog arise from a lifetime of experiences and remembrances. The diligent author may make notes, jot down snippets of overheard conversations, describe the physical features of interesting people whose paths they cross. In doing this, in making these notes that may later inform their commercial work, are writers exploiting the folks the cross paths with in the coffee shop, on the subway, in the doctor’s office? Why do we worry that the image might be exploitative, but rarely have the same concern about the written word? A conversation overheard in a doctor’s office that makes its way, anonymously, into a later work could be far more invasive than a street photo. One last question, as we consider potential exploitation, here, do we mean from the economic perspective, or is something else being exploited?

First, let’s think about this last question. I suspect what’s nagging at us here isn’t economic exploitation, but an exploitation of the subject’s life, their story, the circuitous and sometimes painful pathway that has brought them to this exuberant or poignant moment, the lifetime of trials that created something that resonated with us, the photographer. And just as an economic transaction can be lopsided, so too can this one. We’re very often, in street or travel photography, not giving something of ourselves in return.

Worse, if we haven’t put the camera down; haven’t interviewed our subjects; dutifully recorded their stories; teased out their histories, their hopes and fears; if we haven’t asked who, what, why, and how — how can we purport to tell their truth? Instead, we skim off the thinnest veneer of their story, just the visibly enticing shell of it, and use it to tell some other truth (or fiction) of our own. Sontag warned that “to photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed” [On Photography, 1973]. The photographer might even narcissistically claim the subject’s truth as little more than a small novelty within their own (obviously far more important) story — throwing up photos of exotic looking people on Instagram for quick likes and status points rather than to motivate cultural understanding or insight (and, yes, … I’m thinking back through my own online presence as I write this, trying to discern how good a citizen I’ve been).

But why the difference between the written description and the photograph above? Is there an actual difference? Or only a difference in our perception, our expectation, of the two media? People have been passing down oral histories, traditions, stories, and parables for probably as long as the spoken word has been around. The photograph on the other hand is still comparatively novel. And while we understand instinctively that stories represent the perspective or interpretation of the author, that they may shift over time as the story is passed between us, as new perspectives are added and insights gleaned, perhaps we don’t know quite how to interpret a photograph yet. Sontag seems to suggest something similar at one point [On Photography, 1973], noting that the written word:

seems a less treacherous form of leaching out the world, of turning it into a mental object, than photographic images, … What is written about a person or an event is frankly an interpretation, as are handmade visual statements, like paintings and drawings. Photographed images do not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it.

That is, we understand that the author of a story interprets reality, yet to the viewer, photographs “seem” to be something else, seem to be “pieces of it”. At least some photographers, myself included, would argue otherwise. Sontag again, “Although there is a sense in which the camera does indeed capture reality, not just interpret it, photographs are as much an interpretation of the world as painting and drawings are” [On Photography, 1973]. David Hurd and Bill Jay discuss this as well in their excellent book, On Being a Photographer (1997):

So what is the relationship between your observations of reality and that problematic word truth?

It is tenuous at best. If truth implies factual accuracy and objectivity, then the connection is completely severed. The only factually correct aspect of photography is that it shows what something looks like — under a very particular set of circumstances. But that is not the same as the underlying truth of the event or situation. As to objectivity, it does not exist. In my own photography I have to fundamental controls: where I stand and when I press the button. Both are very subjective choices so the end result, the picture, is bound to be equally subjective.

Yet, I suspect there’s something about the jolting starkness and frankness of a photograph that gives the viewer pause. It’s quite clear that the photographer didn’t just happen to overhear something in passing, that they weren’t just an inadvertent observer of a stranger’s moment of hardship or intimacy as they passed by on the street. No, it’s clear that the photographer has intent, makes a conscious choice to see, to raise the camera, to level it at their subject, to choose the framing and the settings, and to willfully press the shutter knowing full well the implications. The writer may be just as diligent an observer of the world around themself, but there’s no physical act involved by which they proclaim their intent to intrude, to appropriate. It’s one thing to overhear a conversation at the next table while sipping coffee; it’s another to scoot your chair closer.

Brent DanielComment