street photography and the homeless

There’s some interesting discussion here that I find fascinating. It’s worth reading, if you can get over the self-importance of some of the posts. (As my friend Melissa put it, it’s like some of them are going to the zoo.) The debate centers on the ethics of photographing homeless people, in general. Standard ethics and most jurisdictions of law operate on the principle that basically photographing anyone in public is fair game. They have no expectation of privacy, yadda yada. The interesting argument in this thread is that for a homeless person, public spaces are their home – they have nowhere else to go. So is it still ethical to take their picture without asking permission?

Living downtown, naturally, I’ve been exposed to Nashville’s growing homeless problem – as any reader of my blog knows, since I practically never shut up about it. I’ve tried, with varying levels of success (read: not much) to find time to get involved – either merely arguing about it on the internet or trying to volunteer when I can. But one thing I’ve never really done much of is photography of homeless people. I’ve never felt quite right about it. But let me back up.

It all started even before I really got into photography too seriously, and I ran across someone that had some pictures of homeless people around Nashville on flickr. I wish I could find it, but there was one (very good!) portrait of a particular guy that I recognized. The comments on the flickr pic were hilarious. They were all like “I can see the pain in his eyes” or “that face probably has a million stories to tell!! stoic and full of pride!!” and all this other bullshit. This is hilarious, of course, because I recognized the guy. I was like “stoic and full of pride?? That’s the guy that spit at me cus I didn’t give him money last week.” I mean, not that I don’t have compassion for the guy, but the utter wankery in these comments just totally turned me off. It took me a long time to really put my finger on what it specifically was that bothered me about it. Over the last few years I’ve seen the work that goes into advocacy for homeless issues, and the work done by people that are actually out there working for change. So, when I increasingly run across people taking pictures of homeless people and effusively glowing about how they really “connected” with them, it strikes me as a little hypocritical. It’s easy to ask a homeless dude his name and take his picture with your fancy digital camera and go home to your warm bed feeling really good about yourself because you actually talked to a homeless person and then showing everyone your soulful portrait. It’s a lot harder to do something that actually effects change. There’s one guy in that thread:

Many times the homeless people I photograph have a little jar or cup in front of them. This may sound unethical itself, but usually combined with a few words some loose change will make them realize you are not against them. This is usually their main concern.

Yeah, you’re a real humanitarian, dude. Anyways, so skip forward to today, where I’ve been increasingly experimenting with different forms of photography.. trying to have fun and learn about them all. Recently I’ve been trying my hand at some street photography. Street photography is a wide umbrella, and I suppose it depends on what you want to do with it. I’m also intently following the turf war in Nashville between advocates for the homeless and the encroaching upper-class that wants them gone, basically. It angers me when I talk to people that talk about how homeless people “have no excuse” because there’s “ample help” available – while I’m seeing people sleeping on the street in the cold, and they all tell me the same thing: there’s nowhere to go. The rescue mission is full, and abysmally run to boot. But it’s one thing to argue about this on the Internet, and another to just .. take a picture of it. Maybe it’d be harder to argue with. I had my camera with me (surprise!) the night that I ran across the metro park rangers herding a group of homeless people sleeping at riverfront out of the park. When I asked one of the guys where they were told to go, he just shrugged. It’s a picture of this sort of thing going on that’s hard to argue with, and sometimes I think this is the sort of thing I want to capture. (As it happens, the few pictures I did try to take that night were woefully underexposed because I was trying to use a new camera mode at the time.)

So, anyways. I don’t really know where I was going with this. I am just thinking out loud. The homeless people are undeniably a part of the neighborhood I live in – I feel like it’s something I want to capture somehow, but I am not sure how, and I am not sure how I feel about the ethics involved. My friend Melissa’s take is that basically you should just ask someone’s permission to take their picture in general. No dilemma. I am mostly inclined to agree – I think it’s common courtesy. But there is a sortof aspect of photography that is about capturing a moment that is irreconcilable with actually asking for permission. This picture, for example, or this one. I had reservations even about posting these, but in these cases, I think it’s a little different. It’s not so much the person that is the subject of the photograph but their condition – the moment. And obviously asking for permission to take the picture is not compatible since you’d have to … wake them up.

Last night when I was out wandering around some dude on the corner stopped me.. “hey that’s a nice picture camera you got.. hey listen i don’t mean no harm etc etc but i just need a buck if you could help me out, you can do anything you want.. take my picture whatever.. just help me out”. It’s like.. when faced with that level of desperation, how can you feel like you’re really doing anything worthwhile? How do you take someone’s picture after that and not just feel totally dirty and exploitive? It’s an interesting dilemma, and something I find myself thinking about a lot.