A few weeks ago, an online mob doxed a street photographer for taking candid images at a county fair. The incident raises questions about where we draw the line when it comes to invading someone’s privacy in a public space.
As the photographer involved, Joshua Rosenthal, tellingly notes in his response via social media, “What one sees as being ‘wrong’ is not illegal” and he’s absolutely right. In a public space — where arguably there is no private space — a photographer is entitled to use a camera however he or she wishes. I’m very much an advocate of freedom to photograph in public spaces and I’ll earnestly defend any photographer’s legal right to capture images. However, just because something is legally acceptable doesn’t mean it’s ethically acceptable. I respect the right of a photographer to shove a camera in someone’s face, but I don’t respect the practice.
Looking at Rosenthal’s website, there is a large number of candid shots of people on the streets captured at close quarters, often isolated using a flash. The style is very much reminiscent of photographer and provocateur Bruce Gilden who pioneered this intrusive style in the 1980s.
Listening to Gilden talk about his imagery gives an insight into how he works. “I have no ethics,” he states brazenly in this video, as if that needed explaining, and demonstrating the degree of arrogance that informs his methodology. His style of image-making is part of a broader narrative within photography whereby a person of privilege takes an expensive, revered tool into the maelstrom of public life in order to capture “art” — something which they see as theirs. The camera becomes a passport for unethical, obnoxious behavior, and the photographs produced convey their sense of entitlement.
What’s convenient with this style of photography is that it depicts a person in the moment before they realize that their expectations of reasonable conduct in public space have been disrupted. The images do not contain the anger, embarrassment, and frustration that typically manifest immediately after a shot has been captured. The feelings of outrage are quietly ignored when the images are printed on the pages of books and hung on the walls of galleries.
Take the camera away, and the likes of Gilden and Dougie Wallace are effectively just walking up to strangers, shouting “boo!” and leaving them temporarily blinded by a flash. The question should be about how using a camera makes this acceptable, as if this is some noble endeavor that reveals previously unseen truths of what life is really about. While the person wielding the camera has the self-indulgent belief that this is something heroic — and the agencies, book publishers, magazine editors, and gallery curators are quick to endorse this notion — the truth is that these photographers are photographing little more than stories of their own egos.
Gilden’s reasoning is paper-thin. In this interview with Martin Parr, he asks how his work is any different to a candid shot taken from across the street. While both raise their own questions regarding ethics, one is a depiction of life as it is seen, while the other is a depiction of life as intruded by a privileged person’s overblown sense of what it means to be a photographer.
To any budding street photographer who wants to ask awkward questions about where to draw the line, consider this first: do you want to document the world, or do you want to depict a world that is framed by your ego?