Photography and Morality.

I didn’t take the picture.

Today I dropped off some rolls of film for my Spinner 360 camera. The camera was a gift from two Austrians I’d befriended last March. They had one, I was quite enamored of the idea and complexities of shooting 360º. Since it was my first visit to the Lomography Store in the West Village, I wandered around and purchased two very cool film cameras. A Fisheye #2 and an Action Sampler with flash. Loaded them with 400 ASA color negative film and walked away dying to start shooting.

Since I was alone, the Fisheye was the one to start with.Walked and looked but didn’t shoot anything. Then down onto the NYC Subway platform where I figured I’d try out a neato feature- B setting. Open shutter for as long as I want to hold it. I steadied the body of the camera against a column, and as a train sped into the station, I held the shutter open. Released it before the nose of the train passed the edge of the circular frame. Hoping for the best.

Got onto the train. An indigent gentleman, reeking of dried sweat and dried urine, walked on. In each hand was a collection of plastic supermarket sized bags, filled with his possessions. He had wide slashes in the legs of his pants. His t shirt- ironically- had a logo that said " New Life " on it. Long white hair flowed to his shoulders and his equally long white beard wasn’t a tangled mess, but it wasn’t overly well kept.

He was muttering quietly to himself almost nonstop. Now and then as I sat, peering through my Fisheye out the window of the subway, I’d turn and look at him. He appeared to focus on me when I looked at his face, but perhaps I was seeing something not there.

I knew while still underground that once above in the daylight, a wide angled lens of all of his bags on the floor around him and his deeply lined face and never-stopping eyes would be a tremendously strong photograph.

I couldn’t take it without asking his permission, and I didn’t want to upset him by asking. IF he had the lucidity to understand what I was asking of him, he might well have been upset. I felt like my urge to shoot a highly compelling photograph was as much exploitative as creative.

In the past if I’ve been in a situation to shoot a stranger on the street for any reason, it’s been through a pretty long lens and they never knew. Here, I was across the train from him on my seat. Nobody was at our end of the car, the empty seats on either side of the fellow would have heightened the image.

It would have been disrepectful to shoot from the hip, hoping he was either not lucid enough to realize or that he didn’t notice I’d maybe shot his photograph. I wasn’t comfortable asking his permission. So I didn’t shoot it.

I’ve always loved street photography and have felt fairly bulletproof- and comfortably justified- in shooting images of strangers as long as I wasn’t going to make a dime off of the images.

Not sure what is different now. It doesn’t matter if the photo would have been a snapshot or regarded as high art down the road by viewers. It only matters to me now, in posting this, that my gut told me not to shoot a frame that previously I would have been compelled to capture.

On Preview: Suddenly I am reminded of that horrific scene in Saving Private Ryan where the two soldiers are locked in mortal combat, rolling on the floor, to gain control of the knife that would kill one of them. Face to face, IN your face, murder of another human being. So intimate, so powerful. I think I hesitated because there was no anonymity to the act of photographing him.

Either I will have to get really ballsy about the use of this, or it will be for architectural or shots of friends and family. Because it’s fairly boring unless you are quite close to a subject, or at least have a close element to the side in tight foreground.

I have been a still and video photographer for many years. People are more accepting of having their picture taken than you think. The key is to just do it and act like you own the place. Don’t linger with focusing, don’t keep the camera pointed at the subject for a long period of time, and don’t act guilty.

People out in public have no expectation of privacy. It is perfectly legal to photograph them…and illegal for them to take physical action against you for it. People that shoot for a living, especially in news, come to view others as props. They are like buildings or the sun. There to be shot.

I don’t know many artistic photographers, but I know plenty of news photographers and I agree with Evil One. Happy children, shocked bystanders, grief-stricken relatives – if they aren’t exactly “props” they are storytelling devises.

When you look through a viewfinder, it becomes completely amoral (not immoral, but without morality.) If you want to capture the image, you take the shot.

Evil One, allow me to introduce myself. I’ve been a working Director of Photography/ Cameraman/ Steadicam Operator for 32 years. I spent my career shooting primarily in New York City, though I did hit Asia and Europe and North Africa a bit on location. Credits include Sex and The City, The Sopranos, Spike Lee features, ABC, CBS, NBC, Saturday Night Live, The 1996 Olympics and so on. 2 Primetime Emmy nominations, 2 Sports Emmy nominations. Bucketful of industrial awards, blah blah.

Believe me when I say I understand how to take film, video and photos in public. This situation was unique, which is why I posted. This person was in public, yes. But he was not necessarily in a position to give informed consent and I personally felt it inappropriate to shoot his photo without asking permission first. Legally I’m well aware of how solid my ground is, at least in NY State and NYC.

With all due respect, if you shoot news, you have it rough. Aside from porn, news is the only kind of paid film or video work I’ve never shot. But aside from news, I have to disagree 100% with your statement. People are not like the sun or buildings. They’re people. They exist in the street and legally we can photograph them and use those images, though there have been some very aggressive cases in the last few years against making buckets of money off of someone’s image captured in public.

Regardless of the law, this was a moral call. I do not and never will view people as pieces of meat to be used to sell a great shot. It’s not how I was raised.

And I was not on a news assignment or stringing a story and I was not at work in any way. It was a private shooting moment that I decided not to take advantage of.

ETA: If you do shoot news, you likely have a lens that goes from 4.8mm to 126mm more or less. A part of the thrust of my O.P. centers around the fisheye lens aspect of this particular camera. In order to fill the frame with this man’s body, I would have had to have stood and walked over and shoved the lens less than 4 feet from his face.

I know in news one is more aggressive- but you mean to tell me that you would stand 4 feet from someone who just watched their son throw himself off a building just to get that nice meaty close up of them crying? I doubt it. Perhaps you’d hang back 10 feet and zoom in a bit to get that sobbing c/u.

Then again, I don’t know you. Maybe you wouldn’t. Maybe you’d walk right up and shove the lens 4 feet away from the face of a person on the street to get a video clip. ( And please- don’t focus? Who shoots news in H.D. and never focuses up before a shot? The guy whose career lasts a week… )

And on a lighter note, acting like you own the place is what it is frequently about. Plenty of war stories about stolen shots with no permits, grabbing shots in places where someone might question my presence, but I go and get the shot and walk away, etc.

Copy that. But again, this wasn’t news ( no less hard news ). It was, to categorize it, a human interest moment and the human was not someone I could get a real read on. Hence my hesitation.

Just so we’re clear here, I’m not kicking myself for not taking the shot. I’ve skipped shots I knew would be very fine before, because it wasn’t the right place or time to be shooting, or because I wanted my eyes to get the image, not to be behind the lens.

Your bio changes the conversation. Thanks for taking the time to let me know a bit about yourself. I wasn’t trying to lecture, I was trying to give the perspective of someone who does video for a living. Little did I know.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, news is all I’ve ever done. You quickly become desensitized to the world around you and tend to view it as a stage that you are somehow distant from. It is a necessary part of the job. I’ve shot every kind of news event you can imagine. I was in Oklahoma City hours after the bombing. Car wrecks, fires…etc. In many cases nobody wants you there, but it’s your job. So you tune them out and eventually build up a shell and a morbid sense of humor.

When I referenced lingering on focusing, I meant do it quickly and get off the subject. The patience a person has for being photographed or filmed depends on the circumstances and how long the camera is pointed at them.

I wouldn’t get in their face, no. With a video camera on the shoulder 20 feet is plenty close enough. Start rolling while pointing away from them, zoom all the way out and focus to infinity (which for the uninitiated, that puts everything in focus) and swing to them. Hold for ten seconds and then drop the camera off the shoulder. Rolling any longer than that is pointless because the edited shot won’t be any longer than five seconds or so and continuing to point the camera at them invites drama. Why do I want to avoid drama? Because even though I’m desensitized, I’m not heartless…and I don’t want them to delay me with a big scene because I need to get back to the newsroom so I can start editing.

On a tripod, I can be further away and less obtrusive…but I quit carrying a tripod to spot news scenes a long time ago. It stayed in the truck.

I am now a newspaper editor and use stills. Those are even less obtrusive because you can stay back, snap a few shots and crop later. I have taken pictures of a mother who lost two sons to a creek, people watching their house burn down and all circumstances in between.

For the most part, media consumers want those shots…unless it’s their turn in the barrel. Then it’s different.

And thank you for that post. It sure does clarify and expand your first one. Tough gig, news.

Here’s the thing. This fellow got off at my subway stop. ( well. Subway, elevated 40 feet in the air… ) and gathering his bags, walked down the stairs. I was in a hurry, did not look at which way he went. It may have been random. Or, he may frequent the neighborhood and I’ve never seen him before.

All by way of saying I may, when strolling the hood with my 70-300, see him and be quite comfortable taking a few frames.

If it had been me, I would have put on a happy face and said, “I love that t-shirt! Mind if I get a photo of it?”

  1. Compliments work.
  2. Friendly, non-agressive question.
  3. He thinks you just like the t-shirt and is not offended or upset.

What about those camera lens that secretly actually aim in a different direction? I remember seeing one a friend had in Germany…you aim your camera directly ahead of you, but in reality you are focusing on the person 90 degrees to your left. He said it was great for getting shots of locals when he traveled, without upsetting them.