f/Egor: R-E-S-P-E-C-T

I photograph people. On the streets and in public places, my eye and my camera keep a vigilant lookout for the little nuances that help define what it means to be human. Because of this somewhat curious behaviour, I’ve been cursed at, chased and threatened, yet I don’t resent when these street confrontations occur. They’re merely a response to our mistrustful times and to an over-abundance of poorly conceived street photography on the internet. But unlike those in the dSLR brigade who shoot from across the street with their long safari lenses, my wide angles make me much easier to catch and berate. Which is fine — it gives me an opportunity to explain what I’m doing and why. Rarely, however does dropping such names as W. Eugene Smith, Robert Frank or Garry Winogrand result in any sort of deeper understanding from my admonishers, but it does help diffuse the situation long enough that I can make a quick escape.

I am very conscious of the fact that photographing people in a public place is a privilege, not a right. One needs only to look at the clampdown on photography in various countries to realize how easy it is to lose that privilege. So I never take photos with the intent of being exploitative or disrespectful of my subject.

The problem, of course, is that different people have different ideas of what might be considered disrespectful. The hardest thing about being a humanistic photographer is not finding the intriguing shot, it’s not timing the shot, it’s not focusing, exposing, framing or even post-processing the shot. The hardest thing about being a humanistic photographer is deciding whether or not I should actually publish a particular shot.

The fact is, I don’t know the people I photograph. In general, I photograph only those with whom I feel some intangible connection, friendship, camaraderie, empathy or attraction. If I feel a sense of dislike for a person or their actions, I usually don’t photograph them. Unfortunately, even though my photographic intentions are honorable, I can never truly say whether or not my subjects might be offended by a particular photo. All I can do is to look at each photo and ask myself whether or not I would take offense if this were a photo of me. Granted, I have far less shame than the average person, so I try to err on the conservative side.

Unfortunately, not all photographers show their subjects the respect they deserve. So let me make a simple suggestion to any photographer who shoots on the street. Ask yourself two simple questions before you trip that shutter. First ask, “What is my purpose for taking this person’s photo?” Then ask, “Would I still take this photo if I were two meters from my subject and not 20?” If the answer to the first question is, “to disrespect this person” or the answer to the second is “no,” then maybe it’s not a photo that should be taken — nor is it one that should be published.

I believe in freedom of speech. I believe in freedom of expression. But I also believe in compassion and respect. At times, these can be conflicting values. It’s exactly why I have such a hard time deciding which photos to publish and why my hard drive is full of some rather good images that will never see the light of day. Freedom doesn’t just mean “the freedom to photograph and publish everything you want.” Freedom also means “the freedom to choose which photos you don’t publish.”

Street shooting is a privilege. Empathize with your subjects. Like your subjects. Respect your subjects.

-grEGORy simpson

grEGORy simpson is a professional “pounder.” You may find him pounding on his computer keyboard, churning out articles for both the Leica Blog and his own blog at photography.ULTRAsomething.com. Or you may hear him pounding on a musical keyboard, composing music and designing new sounds. Frequently, he’s out pounding city pavement and photographing humans simply being. This third act of pummeling has yielded a new photography book, Instinct, which has given Mr. Simpson a fourth vocation — pounding on doors in an attempt to market the darn thing. Follow these and other photographic exploits on the ULTRAsomething facebook page.

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  • Nice pictures and fine story.
    Do you ask before you take your pictures?
    What lenses do you use?

  • another great blog from the egor meister!

    I would be interested in what some other photographers think about “street/documentary”.

    I got one terse query in response to one of my blogs that I should ask permission before taking the picture….but I argued the “magic moment” would be forever lost but I did have to admit to

    “Shot First…Ask Permission Later (if I really need to)”….

    Also a lot of photographers I know get scared of shooting street but I argue “a window to the soul”, “that unguarded moment” and “a real point in reality”…and I would much rather shoot that then a dead wood tree, another winding staircase or the straight pose.

    Keep shooting street…!

  • What about the argument that the street photographer is simply taking a photo of whatever the person is in front of? If they ask why you are taking their picture, just point to whatever is behind them. It’s public space.

  • Excellent points. I too love photographing people, even if in the Washington, DC area street photography leads to all sorts of “suspicious” stares. Edgy people, to say the least, but treating people with respects and many times walking up to them and explaining who you are and why you take the photos, seems to ease up the atmosphere a bit.

    I always carry a set of micro calling cards with my website address, my name, and phone number, which go a long way in breaking up the ice. People feel a lot more at ease when you are willing to say who you are like that. In some instances, before I leave the scene someone has already checked out my website on the we to make sure I am legit. Seeing your name online associated with some creative photography helps tremendously. It tells people that we as photographers are artists and that we only aim to capture life on the street to glorify it, not to put it down.

  • i concur, another excellent post.
    could not agree more that respect for the people we photograph is what draws the fine line between photography as art or documentation of street life, and obnoxious intrusion into people’s right to privacy.

    living downtown los angeles, i witness endless situations of poor people living on the street in conditions that scream to be documented … however, more often than not i restrain myself and just put the camera away. it feels simply wrong to expose certain situations – even though it would be so right to let the world know they exist.

    hard to decide when it is ‘ok’ and when it is not.
    i would never shoot anyone to embarrass him/her (and more often than not they make it very clear that it is not ok to click – try and walk around skid row with a camera!).
    so when i do take the shot, i will try not to show the face in a recognizable manner … that person could really be anyone of us.

    for some reason, i feel more ‘at ease’ when i travel to india, central or south america, parts of europe or asia … similar situations in a different context appear less shocking, for some reason, and showing very interesting facial features adds a lot to the image.
    still, i always do it in a respectful manner; a polite smile, a nod, a couple of words exchanged after the shot go a long way!

  • Wow! So many comments in the first 24 hours. And for some reason, I thought this article would challenge “Bartlett’s Rejects” for the “fewest comments” title. I’ll do my best to reply to each of you here:

    Robert: Thanks for the words of encouragement, and the honor of “meister” status — quite a contrast to the titles with which I’m usually bestowed.

    Eric: I always invite subjects to visit my ULTRAsomething site, but I’m sure they forget the URL long before they see their next browser. I used to hand out my business card, but that always made people think I was trying to sell them something. I never thought to use the much friendlier, less-intimidating micro business cards, as you suggest. Excellent idea. Thanks!

    Stefano: Nice to know I’m not alone in my struggle to perform some kind of photographic service (rather than disservice) to mankind. Funny thing is, I tend to gravitate toward the lighter and more humorous shots, yet those are the ones that ultimately ’cause me the most grief when it comes time to publish.

    Mike: I’m far too guileless for this approach. If someone questions whether or not I photographed them, I tell the truth. The funny thing is, my most vicious chastising has always happened when I never even took a photo. Sometimes people see me holding a camera and simply assume I must have taken their picture. Even more curious, when they demand to see the LCD as proof, they grow more enraged upon learning that I am telling the truth and that I didn’t photograph them. Go figure…

    Harald: Thanks for the kind words and questions. I’ll answer them in reverse order:

    2) I usually use either a 28mm or a 35mm focal length. On occasion, I shoot with a 21. I’d probably do even more 21 shooting if I owned Leica’s new 21mm f/3.4 Super-Elmar (see my review here: http://blog.leica-camera.com/photography/m-system/fegor-impressions-of-a-leica-super-elmar-m-21mm-f3-4-asph-lens/ ). Next year, I’ve resolved to “shake things up” by carrying and using my old 50mm a bit more frequently (I like to keep my New Years’ resolutions manageable).

    1) I will rarely ask to photograph. I always try to photograph life as it happens, and not influence it. Mind you, this isn’t any sort of manifesto or photographer’s doctrine: it’s simply that the candid approach works best for me and my own particular strengths and weaknesses. It’s also why I feel so much gravitas when it comes time to choose what’s published.

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