Ethics of photographing people – again
A minor miracle has occurred. I’ve been acting as @HUSHrupert for 5 days and only just offended someone. Thought that would happen a lot earlier. Actually I didn’t offend… that’s me being a little dramatic! Just got a word of caution via a direct message saying “Be careful tweeting pics of homeless people especially if they haven’t given permission ppl in the sector will b up in arms.”
I thought about sending the person a link to my previous blog post about my thoughts on posting my own photos. Instead, I’ve just thought more about the issue. If you are expecting a pearl of wisdom; a clear cut opinion on the subject you aren’t going to get one today. Instead, just more thoughts.
I started with the whole idea of asking permission. Generally my photos are from a long distance. As I said in my previous post – I agree with America Watercolourist John Salminen who says that once people are aware of the camera they behave differently and therefore he shoots images at least half a block away. So let’s just take it as read for a moment that the photo is being shot from a significant distance and the subject is unaware. In this context, is it ok to take photographs of a person who – from what I can see – has no disability? Do you find this photo of a worker in a car wash on a break offensive?
If you do find it offensive, I’d love to hear why. I feel perfectly comfortable with this image. Then I reasoned with myself – ok, let’s say the majority of people think the car washer image is acceptable and inoffensive. If I was to post a picture of someone in a wheelchair, or someone who was blind – would that be offensive? If you know me at all, you will know that I have posted pictures of my partner who uses a wheelchair. True – he did know I was taking it – but if I were in the community and I saw a person in a wheelchair I doubt I’d think anything of it – same as the car washer to me. Perhaps here I am different to other people. Given I worked with people who are blind or vision impaired for 10 years and a person very dear to me uses a wheelchair; I am very familiar with both; and comfortable. (One can get so comfortable that you forget your friend is blind. I remember – embarrassingly – this moment: Receptionist who was blind asked me – have you seen ‘John Smith’ go by. My answer – what does he look like? There was a moment before I remembered he couldn’t see and we both had a good laugh!)
Then I came to wonder whether homelessness is so sensitive because unlike a physical disability; the state of being homeless is not always forever. Considering it in that light I asked myself if I was homeless and was able to later find, and remain, in housing would I want any visual record of my past? I suppose that would depend on how comfortable I was with others knowing my story.
So, as I said above – no clear conclusions. Just questions.
(By the way, this was the photo I had tweeted with a link and credit to Sheila Smart as the photographer of course. http://www.flickr.com/photos/sheila_smart/4937049946/ I thought it was a beautiful image with a lot of respect for her subject. However as I could not be sure whether she had asked permission, I played it safe and deleted my tweet. I post it here as you can at least hear all my other comments about the ethics of photographing people and make up your own mind. I can’t fit all this in 140 characters!)