Telephoto lenses are arguably the most powerful and versatile tool in a photographer's bag. These sophisticated glass instruments make it possible to photograph wildlife, war, and natural disasters from a (relatively) safe distance. But like other powerful technological tools, a zoom lens can be used for questionable or unethical purposes, including voyeurism or other invasions of privacy.
Jeff Mermelstein is a successful photographer who created his own special niche, one that has produced lots of interest and admiration. But it has also produced criticism, including the Twitter comment noted in a recent article on his recent work: “shockingly irresponsible.”
Mermelstein's most recent project involves capturing of unsuspecting subjects' phone screens and exhibiting the sometimes highly personal, shocking, or even humorous communications. One can only assume that many of these shots were photographed from a safe distance with a telephoto lens and a high-resolution sensor. However, the angle of view seen in this project's photographs points to an "over-the-shoulder" style, which might actually be possible if done discreetly under the blanket of noise and bustle of New York City.
To Shoot or Not to Shoot?
The improved resolution provided by more powerful camera sensors raises some concerns for those of us photographers and videographers who use them. How do we balance privacy rights and our professional responsibilities? Just because Americans are legally allowed to snap a photo anywhere in public, does it mean we always should?
The answer to such a question is not easy. In fact, some of the most lauded and important photographs ever shot might have been considered invasive, despite earning recognition and even awards for their creators.
Mermelstein clearly doesn't see his project as troublesome. He stands by his work and is quoted saying: "We humans are extraordinarily diverse; however, at the same time, there is some kind of continuity that ties us together in this moment of madness in our history.” And to credit him, the images are zoomed in or cropped so tightly that practically no recognizable features of the subjects are included. In my opinion, this project is at worst an invasion of privacy and at best a curious peek into modern people's personal lives.
Making the most of advancements in photography technology gives you improved access to people and places. But that access requires other advancements in our own application of professional responsibility and in consideration of others.
Do you view voyeuristic art projects as worthy endeavors or attempts to stir up attention and fame? Please share your reactions in the comments section below.