On July, 11th 2013 a disabled 44 year old Iranian man was held briefly by police, accused of taking inappropriate images of children. Around 20 people were reported to have screamed paedo, paedo, as Mr Ebrahimi was taken into custody. The man was released the next day without charge and the police said that there was no case to answer. Two days later a neighbour beat Mr Ebrahimi senseless and, with help from another neighbour, dragged him into a central courtyard over looked by around a hundred maisonettes and flats. He was then set on fire by his neighbour.
The ‘crime’ that Mr Ebrahimi ‘committed’ was photographing children who were damaging the flowers in his property as evidence to later give to the police.
The place that this heinous murder took place was Bristol, rightly regarded as one of the UK’s most progressive cities.
One of the most worrying trends in our society for photographers is that, at a time when children are safer than they have ever been, simply pointing your camera in the general direction of a child can lead to you being branded a perverted sexual predator.
The escalation of the reporting of news events that 24 hour rolling news and social media have created means that many parents seem to being living in a world of fear and tension where they mistrust any adult that they don’t know and are all too ready to believe the worst of anyone. If Mr Ebrahimi was guilty of anything, he was guilty of being an outsider. A disabled man that rarely left his flat, foreign and apparently owning a camera; all that was needed was the spark lit by his completely understandable desire to protect his property.
The UK is considered and correctly so, as one of the most tolerant society’s in the world. That such an event should happen here is shocking and shaming. It is also of very real concern to anyone who carries a camera.
Richard Dawkins, in ‘The God Delusion’, makes the point that over the stretch of recorded history there is a general advancement in the moral standards of humanity. He argues that the moral zeitgeist of society generally progresses with standards of action and thinking moving in a generally liberal direction and away from intolerance and bigotry. He also makes the point that there are sometimes set-backs in this general advance, and this current perception of wrong-doing on the part of those carrying cameras must certainly count as one such setback.
The irony, of course, is that we now have almost infinitely more ability to record events around us. Should a fight break out in my town, everyone will immediately reach for their mobile ‘phone. Not to call the police, but to photograph and video the fracas in front of them. Then, it is not for the purposes of evidence, but to ‘share’ with friends and total strangers who, not being present, will have an inevitably one-sided and distorted version of events to interpret as their imagination and predisposition will allow them.
The ‘photographer’, however (as opposed to just someone with a ‘phone) is regarded as being somehow different. On one hand he (and it normally is ‘he’) is considered to be a potential sexual predator by every other adult in the vicinity, and on the other the authorities (in the form of the police) regard him as a potential terrorist threat.
The trigger for this animosity, tension and distrust is, of course, the size and type of camera you carry. Later I’m going to argue that the distinction between ‘professional’ and ‘amateur’ cameras may be of less significance in the future, but for the present I would suggest that carrying a professional looking camera creates in the minds of non-photographers a less than savoury image of the person doing the carrying.
This unease and distrust that photographers seem to generate is nothing new.
Weegee (the pseudonym of Arthur Fellig (June 12, 1899 – December 26, 1968), became extremely well known for his stark black and white street photography. Weegee worked in the Lower East Side of New York City as a press photographer during the 1930s and ’40s, and he developed his signature style by following the city’s emergency services and documenting their activity. Much of his work depicted unflinchingly realistic scenes of urban life, crime, injury and death. While we might (perhaps should) admire the quality of his work and the drive and determination he demonstrated to carry it out, Weegee’s photography is certainly morally ambiguous.
As he put it himself, ‘in my particular case I didn’t wait ’til somebody gave me a job or something, I went and created a job for myself—freelance photographer. And what I did, anybody else can do. What I did simply was this: I went down to Manhattan Police Headquarters and for two years I worked without a police card or any kind of credentials. When a story came over a police teletype, I would go to it. The idea was I sold the pictures to the newspapers. And naturally, I picked a story that meant something.’
In,’On Photography’, Sontag discusses involves the ways photography can infringe upon one’s personal space and this is a charge that certainly be levelled at Weegee. She states, “To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them they can never have… (p. 14).”
Weegee’s numerous photographs of victims can be seen as intrusive because he not only takes his pictures without permission, but publishes them for all to see. In the case of the criminals and drunks he manages to capture with his camera, you might argue, ‘so what?’ ,but it is easy to see this as predatory, especially his photographs of lifeless victims of crime.
Another danger of accepting this form of photography as valid is that it gives active permission to photographers to act in an intrusive manner. Sontag explains, “The camera is a kind of passport that annihilates moral boundaries and social inhibitions, freeing the photographer from any responsibility toward the people photographed (p. 41).”
With Weegee we see a photographer, who took photographs of whoever he wanted, regardless if they were able to object or consent. He created for himself the role of outside observer, but in this case outside the moral code of most people in society.
How far is the step from Weegee to one particularly noxious group of photographers in contemporary society.
Paparazzi are photographers who take pictures celebrities or others considered to be newsworthy, usually while they are going about normal life routines. Paparazzi tend, like Weegee to be independent and accountable to no-one, but themselves. They operate by taking advantage of any opportunity to ply their trade and are known to doorstep (hang about outside the house) of their victims. Many consider the behaviour of paparazzi to be synonymous with stalking and they have been known to target anyone considered to be in the ‘news’ to create images.
With such a group of odious practitioners plying their trade, and the misconception that we live in times of huge danger for our children, it is no wonder that photographers are held in low regard. Combine that with a reluctance to check facts at almost any level in society and those who wish to take photographs on the streets have serious problems.
In 2011, the Museum of London created an exhibition of street photography, tracing it’s history from 1860 to 2010. “The exhibition provides an interesting insight into how London street photography has developed since 1860. Each photographer has, in their own way, captured something of the character of this amazing city.”
And that quote from the curator of the exhibition sums up the enduring importance of Street Photography as a way of recording and interpreting the world around us in a unique way.
So, street photography is theme in photography that features subjects in candid situations in public places, often without them being aware that they are the subject of a photograph. Subjects are framed and lit in ways that often isolate them in the street, often at a point of great visual interest.
That said, the greatest exponent of street photography, Henri Cartier Bresson, operated in very different way.
He gave them his gaze.
“Henri Cartier-Bresson gave his gaze to those he photographed, to those whose image he captured. He took their pictures, both in the modern photographic sense and in the sense of extracting their image from them: in both cases, there is the sense of something coming to light, something being drawn out into the open and so unravelling the enigma of the visible.” Agnes Sire, An Inner Silence: The Portraits of Henri Cartier-Bresson.
Cartier-Bresson is undoubtedly the best known of the Street Photographers. Using a 35mm Leica camera, he is rightly regarded as the father of modern photojournalism.
Cartier-Bresson became known for the term, ‘the decisive moment’, the perfect timing of the photograph. “Photography is not like painting,” Cartier-Bresson told the Washington Post in 1957. “There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera. That is the moment the photographer is creative,” he said. “Oop! The Moment! Once you miss it, it is gone forever.”
Cartier-Bresson, unlike many street photographers was not afraid to engage with the subject of his photography. Not for him the idea of the candid, snatched, furtive photography. Subjects can often be seen staring straight down the lens at the viewer in a way that creates an extra intimacy with the subject.
He was also a great believer in composing the photograph in the viewfinder of his Leica. Many of his images are printed with the sprocket holes of the film clearly showing, with no possibility for cropping the image in the darkroom. For this to be the case he had to be much tighter, much closer than many street photographers would be comfortable with.
The Street Photographer often seeks to convey a message about the context of the photograph, and as such pays great attention to the timing of his/her photographic exposure.
As was pointed out in the 2011 exhibition, although the digital age has brought about a huge expansion in the ability of take photographers, at the same time people are more and more reluctant to engage in street photography due to perceived dangers, either to their personal safety, or the thought that their photography will be misinterpreted in some way.
This seems a great pity, and already there are growing gaps in the visual history of the street, as seen through the photographers’ lens. We live in an era of fear, fear of the stranger, fear of our neighbour.
This fear is a two way street. At the same time that parents are fearful of their children, photographers are fearful of taking images. Presumably this fear would find favour with the massively over-protective parents of the modern age, but the reality is that their children are statistically far more at risk from family members or close family friends than they ever have been from camera toting street photographers.
Perhaps this is a minor set-back in the development of the moral zeitgeist, perhaps not. More likely it will become superseded by natural changes in the camera market. For the moment, however it seems at beat a pity and at worst (as in the case of Mr Ebrahimi) a shocking indictment on the state of our society.
On the day that I visited the Street Photography Exhibition, I encountered two boys, about 10 years old who were skateboarding in the street. One, seeing me approaching, called out to me, ‘Oi mister. Want to see something funny?’ ‘OK, then.’ I replied, ‘As long as it’s not you two mugging someone.’
One boy produced his ‘phone and showed me a series of videos of his friend repeatedly falling off his skateboard trying to do a trick. It was indeed, very funny. Leaving them laughing in the street, I had to reflect on the question, if I had been filming that scene over and over again, who would have thought it was so funny?