A short while ago I posted this picture online, a candid street photo like many others.
One of the comments was “He looks as though he needs money more than his picture taking. I hope you gave him some.”
I think it’s useful to address some of the assumptions behind the comment and the way it relates to photography and photographers.
Firstly, there is, of course, the tacit criticism of taking the photograph in the first place. The implication, of course, is that I was taking advantage of someone who was down on his luck. In this case, this is readily refuted in that the man in the picture did not seem to be struggling in any way. In fact, he was sat on a bench in a town centre eating a pasty. Just like many other people.
There are some photographers, highly successful ones at that, who do specialise in taking pictures of the homeless and disadvantaged. I discussed this in an earlier article, but in my case, I don’t think I have an inordinate number of these subjects and there is definitely no intention to exploit them in some way.
There is also the impracticality of approaching a stranger in the street and offering them money just in case they need it. I doubt very much that those critical of street photos act any differently. Photographers are in no way better equipped to judge who is in need of help than anyone else. Nor are they more able to (or more obliged to) provide help than anyone else is..
It does raise the question though of whether photographers have some sort of special responsibility. To a certain extent they probably do. Not in the sense of giving money but possibly in making sure they do portray those in need in a dignified and empathetic manner. There is a limit to a photographer’s power. They cannot change much but they can perhaps show things that might need changing.
There is a big difference in highlighting injustice and exploiting it.
There is, of course, the question of people misinterpreting photos completely, as seems to have happened in this case. Sometimes this ‘misinterpretation’ is deliberate.
This issue of interpreting photographs is interesting and deserves an article of its own, but it is not necessarily a bad thing. In reportage or straight documentary then the meaning should really be clear, even if it needs textual context.
There is also the idea of giving the viewer ‘just enough’ information for them to make up their own minds. Often their interpretation may be totally wrong (as in this case) but the photograph can still be successful. The image can say as much about the viewer and their preconceptions and prejudices as it does about the person in the photograph.
Who is to say who the subject of a photograph really is? Is it the person in the photograph, the photographer or the viewer?