Ethics of photography
On the weekend, I went out with my friend ‘4’. We often go for drives to take photographs – Bondi, North Head, Waverley, Sydney Harbour – all over the place. Mostly I take photos from the car, often while we are moving. At present I’m using a lens on loan from my brother (thank you!) a 70 – 300mm, so I’m often a long way from my subject.
Last Sunday, I was taking shots and 4 noticed a woman from behind with dreadlocks. Or rather one big dreadlock. We were in the middle of City Road, Sydney and on the move. I aimed in the general direction and took a photo.
The photo was too quick for me to notice any details. Only later when I reviewed my picture on the camera did I notice how thin this lady was; how ill-fitting her clothing was. I wondered whether she was homeless.
I then returned to a subject I’ve been thinking about for a while – the ethics of photographing people in public. No one thinks twice of photographing a landscape – although some councils are wanting to cash in! Often I feel people are part of the landscape. Of course if I wasn’t so far away and wanted to take portraits, I think it only right to ask permission. However, I’m with the artist John Salminen who said that people change once they become aware of the camera. He uses a telephoto lens so he can capture his subject from at least half a block away.
I looked at this photograph again and I wondered why in particular I questioned whether it was ok to take this photo. I seem at ease with taking photos of many people walking down the street. I asked myself whether I thought it was disrespectful to take a photo of someone who is clearly unwell. Then I thought… well, I would take photos of my friend who is blind without thinking that it was inappropriate because of his disability, so why should disadvantage and poverty be any different to disability? If I suppress the photo for fear of being disrespectful, have I just ignored this woman?
People who are homeless often report loneliness and social isolation as one of the worst parts of their situation. People describe feeling invisible. I felt if I erased this image this lady would be invisible to me. And that didn’t feel right. So, right or wrong, I publish this photo today.