Year 2, Essay 1

According to Geoff Dyer, throughout photographic history the taking of someone’s picture without permission or knowledge has been an act that has generated constant debate. Yet, Dyer continues, for many photographers this practice ‘has become second-nature, an ethical blind-spot’. Recent changes to ethical codes make it no longer possible to ignore this blind-spot. With reference to photography featured in The Ongoing Moment and to other relevant photographic practice discuss the implications for contemporary photography of these emerging ethical codes.

Daniel Foy

Module No.: PHOT20115 Tutor: Andrea Fitzpatrick Word Count: 2,046

In one instance a pedestrian anticipates Gildenʼs intentions and pauses to smile and pose for a photograph. where work produced is often dependent on the subject being unaware that their photograph is being taken. showcases the somewhat confrontational practice of this celebrated Magnum photographer as he documents the streets of New York. legal blind-spot. What is perhaps most surprising about Gildenʼs approach is the lack of resistance by the subjects. However. and despite clear and understandable surprise. at least in the UK and USA. In 2008. the subjects shown in the video interview largely continue about their business without challenging Gildenʼs actions. the laws regarding personal privacy in a public space. and is approached differently by individual photographers. then to penetrate their personal space with his Leica and flash. This is of particular concern to the fields of documentary and street photography. Whilst the photographs are made without the subjectʼs consent. Home Office Minister Tony McNulty stated: “There is no legal restriction on photography in public places. more recently. are largely unchanged since these iconic images were created. in the case of certain types of photographs used to illustrate breaking news events. Methodologies for taking photographs without a subjectʼs knowledge differ between photographers and cultures. however. The WNYC Culture interview WNYC Street Shots: Bruce Gilden (c. There are numerous reasons why such conditions may be of interest to a photographer: in some cases a photographer may want to photograph someone without their knowledge for artistic or aesthetic effect. This may seem a strange concept to contemporary photographers in the UK. Despite his direct and somewhat confrontational approach. and there is no presumption of privacy for individuals in a public place” (Why street photography is facing a moment of truth. The subject is typically captured in the moments prior to their understanding of the situation. The street documentary photographs featured by Geoff Dyer in the opening section of The Ongoing Moment (2005) are principally by pioneering American photographers. 2010). or without their permission due to practical constraints. The Guardian.Gildenʼs approach is to hone in on a subject. 2005). Both philosophy and aesthetic intentions inform the methodologies behind street photography. which leads to him being chastised by a visibly irritated Gilden. and then instructed to walk on. where such methods would likely be 2 . sensitivities concerning the taking of a personʼs photograph without their knowledge or consent is an issue with implications reaching further than the objective eyes of the law.Taking someoneʼs photograph without their knowledge and/or permission is considered something of an ethical and. they are clearly very aware of his presence .

along with other factors. With British law ruling that no-one has the right to privacy in a public place. a negative that will become a physical object . Then you don’t give off any bad vibes.considered by the public to be an excessive breach of personal space and privacy. The Telegraph. in his case. but equally it may by a result of New Yorkʼs uniquely rich heritage in street documentary photography. It is not an 3 . an argument. whilst outlining a methodology that recognizes the sensitivities of his subject matter.” (Matt Stuart’s street photography. However. or something happening. but perhaps symbolically .whilst the subject leaves empty handed and possibly oblivious. or love. you don’t give off fear. you don’t give off any stalker vibes. and you can go in and share it with these people and go out. and they didnʼt realise you were there. it is perhaps not surprising that British street photographers largely adopt a more subtle methodology when photographing citizens without their consent. He goes on to state that: “[You can come across] a whole situation. there is a natural fear associated with taking photographs without someones knowledge.” Whilst Stuart is clearly mindful of the reactions of his subjects. This may be due American extroverted culture. This may understandably contribute to suspicion directed toward British street photographers. In this context. The practice of street documentary photography in Britain is notably different. the fact remains that he enters their space . and as the only nation in the EU rated in the ʻblackʼ category. which. ranking lowest in the EU and alongside Russia for ʻindividual privacyʼ. Primarily you need to know that you’re not hurting anybody.and leaves with. and thatʼs a really nice feeling. indicating ʻendemic surveillanceʼ (Britain: the most spied on nation in the world. as physical manifestations of an often unwelcome and overbearing background hum of constant surveillance. 2006). despite his own ethical comfort. Contemporary street photographer Matt Stuart sums up his philosophy in an interview with Spine TV: “Primarily you need to know that you’re not doing anything wrong. this law also safeguards corporate and state surveillance. has resulted in Britain becoming the most surveilled nation in the world. He does however indicate that.private not in a legal sense. 2010) Stuartʼs description clearly indicates he is comfortable that he isnʼt acting in an ethically questionable manner. it would seem logical that candid street photography would be an accepted and popular field. and that what you’re doing you’re happy with and confident about.a record of the subject and their actions at the time of exposure .

44). p. Dyer touches upon the issues around ʻtakingʼ photos of beggars whilst offering nothing in return. Photographers that Dyer discusses in The Ongoing Moment also adopted measures to help ensure that the subject was oblivious of their presence as a photographer.exchange that appears mutually beneficial. much less if the subjected actually wanted to be photographed.13) However. Dyer explains the interest of photographers in images of the blind at length.Evans was even breaking the law. and took photographs at right-angles to the direction the false lens faced in an effort to mask his intentions. 2010).ʼ (p. These photographers went to lengths to deceive their subjects . Philip-Lorca diCorcia.” (p. 2005. who photographed unknowing passersby using a flash system rigged to a scaffold in his ʻHeadsʼ series. Strand affixed a false lens to his camera.17). That isnʼt to say necessarily that Strand was acting immorally in creating them. whist Winogrand took photographs so quickly that ʻeven if people notice they do not have the chance to do anything about itʼ (Dyer. Arbusʼs statement of interest in the blind and mentally ill likely also applies to the street photographers discussed by Dyer besides being visually unaware of the physical manifestations of emotion. as photographing on subway as he was without a permit was illegal . the blind cannot 4 . but states that in Strandʼs case “only by deceiving his subjects that he could be faithful to them. which at one point he summarizes by way of a quote from Diane Arbus. but rather that it is a dilemma that is becoming more significant and less avoidable in todayʼs society.and yet the contemporary ethical issues around creating these images are overlooked in many modern photographic texts. The Observer. the case is a notable indicator of increased demand for control over personal privacy and control over personal representation in the public sphere. who also photographed the mentally ill: she likes them ʻbecause they canʼt fake their expressions. and the connotations of ʻtakingʼ a photograph would seem to reinforce this. although these methods present an additional set of ethical issues. was sued by an Orthodox Jew on the grounds that his privacy and religious rights had been violated in the act of exhibiting this image in a gallery (Why street photography is facing a moment of truth. or at least unaware of the true subject of the photograph that was being created. Although the case was dismissed on grounds of the image being created for art rather than commerce. There are other methods of photographing people without their ʻknowledgeʼ. Evans concealed a camera up his sleeve. this doesnʼt address the question of whether Strand had the moral authority to create these images without the subjectʼs knowledge.

The sensitivity around this issue is magnified where issues around ʻvulnerableʼ subjects such as the homeless or disabled are concerned. The photographs that Dyer chose to illustrate the opening section of The Ongoing Moment include photos of blind persons by Paul Strand.including exploitation by the photographers themselves. This is one of the factors that made diCorciaʼs ʻHeadsʼ series intriguing to view.to presenting subjects how they wish and expect to be presented.return the gaze of the photographer in the conventional sense. cosmetics. In addition. in her words: ʻThey donʼt know what their expressions are. and one of the reasons Arbus likes photographing the blind and mentally disabled.44). while it seems that the subjects benefit at best indirectly. In diCorciaʼs case. André Kertész and Walker Evans that have contributed to their respective successes as celebrated photographers. This isnʼt something that is obviously compatible with the capitalist mentality of the majority of western cultures. so there is no maskʼ (Dyer. the ethical issue still stands: the respective photographers benefit directly. and conscious reactions. the subjectsʼ lack of control over their presentation is an intrinsic factor of With a methodology opposed . People expect to be able to manage every aspect of their outward appearance to influence the way they are perceived. It doesnʼt seem particularly likely that this was a primary motivator behind the creation of the photographs featured. A primary ethical concern with this is that blind persons photographed are by nature of their condition more vulnerable. Besides capitalism. p. the work. many modern interpretations of the work of pioneering street photographers place emphasis on the point that the photographs chosen make statements about class poverty and the role of disabled persons as they choose to display themselves in society. or is lost in ones thoughts. regardless of whether they have given their permission to be photographed. 2005. not only socially and in terms of their physical. this ʻmaskʼ of personality is infringed upon in the act of being photographed whilst one is unaware of being watched. however. emotional and financial security. 5 . The photographers featured presumably benefited directly from their respective photographs of the blind. perhaps it shouldnʼt be surprising that he was sued. clothing.although not necessarily maliciously . another cornerstone of contemporary western culture is the external presentation of oneself. and the idea that a person is able to express themselves through their choice of material purchases. but also perhaps to exploitation by third parties . However.

Two particular elements of the Counter Terrorism Act 2008 affect photographers: Section 44.for example. previously ethically acceptable. journalists. whilst the photographer is working in public spaces . Despite both sections of the Counter Terrorism Act being created for use against legitimate terrorist threats. 2008). right or wrong. which was retired mid 2010 and allowed police officers to conduct on-the-spot searches. and detaining of a 15 year old photographing a parade (Young photojournalist detained for army cadet pics. and tourists. Vague language such as this encourages paranoia directed at photographers creating photographs of anything out of the ordinary. The British Journal of Photography. and because parts of the law have in the past been misused in a virtually systematic fashion to restrict innocuous. questions regarding the ethics of photographing people without their permission. searching. both have been used by frontline police officers to deter photographers from their legal right to photograph police officers without their prior permission. and still entirely legal photography of all kinds. could easily have tangible consequences for a photographerʼs freedom. an advertising campaign launched by the Metropolitan Police Service encourages people to report photographers who ʻseem oddʼ as potential terror suspects (Metropolitan Police Service. the stopping. 2010). While it is important to question the ethics of photographing someone without their permission. and Section 76. are now not merely philosophical questions alone . the ethics concerning misusing laws for purposes other than for which they were intended must also be addressed. Thus. with no obvious link to terrorism. or using deceitful methods. however. Photographers are not hampered by Sections 44 and 76 alone. The legislation is significant both because it affects a wide range of photographers as varied as street photographers.The most recent obstacle facing British photographers is British Anti-Terrorism legislation. 6 . a more recent addition which concerns the creation or soliciting of ʻinformationʼ (including photographs) about members of the armed forces.negative responses.

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