Unwitting Subjects

blind-man-subway.jpgA few years ago I took this photo of a blind man on the F train and it sparked some lively discussion in the comments. If you want to read the original post it's right here.  As I was walking around today I was thinking about how photography has changing within our society. As I mentioned in the comments the first time this all came up, people have been taking pictures of each other without their knowledge for just about as long as photography has been around.  Certainly the point at which small handheld cameras came along was a big turning point. And street pictures of blind people and other unwitting subjects have become icons of early street photography, as this Paul Strand picture you've all seen a hundred times will show. A few weeks ago my good friend Meg sent me a site with a number of videos with interviews of a number of famous street photographers. I found it both fascinating and stressful to watch. Especially those who were not being coy about it, but rather just sticking the camera in people's faces.  I dislike confrontation enough that the idea of making it part of my creative process is a non-starter. Maybe I'm too nice.

There are now cameras everywhere, in our phones, on telephone polls, behind the counter at the bodega, and 15 other places in between. And with these cameras being everywhere it seems like people are less keen in getting their picture taken than ever before. Based on the pictures I've seen, if there was a guy with a camera around there was an excuse to ham it up and try to get in front of the lens. Maybe because it was more expensive it was more of a novelty. Now everyone questions your motives, more often than not people are trying to cover their faces if you pull a camera up to your eye when they're around. Maybe it's because they think they'll end up on your Flickr stream. But so what if they do? I saw a kid on the subway a few months ago with a Nikon SLR with a very wide-angle lens around his neck. The whole thing connected to a remote trigger he had in his hand.  He was acting like he was just standing there, but in fact was taking pictures of the people on the train. Basically the modern equivalent of what Walker Evans was doing in the late 30's. A couple of middle-aged guys sitting across the way were murmuring to each other and pointing to the kid, clearly his jig was up and they were, as the British say, non-plussed.  And I'll admit that when the lens was pointed in my direction, even though I was trying to 'act natural' to help him make a good pictures, I felt at least a little bit violated and unsure how I felt about the whole thing.

But the more I think about it, we need people like him. We need people to record the world the way it is and not the way we want it presented all the time.  The point at which everything is controlled and sanitized, we lose perspective of how it real was.  I'm all for privacy, but I'm also all for art, and I think that if you're walking down the street in public you're fair game.  Thoughts?