As many of you know, Samantha and I started League magazine and the League of Landscape Photographers as an outlet for photographic creativity with a conscience. League members photograph the world around them in accordance with high ethical standards and they make imagery with purpose, meaning and integrity. League photographs engage, question and challenge the viewer. League and the League of Landscape Photographers seek to raise landscape photography to a personal expressive art that comments on the world around us.
Samantha and I always acknowledge and reward those in the photographic community who are doing exceptional work and who inspire and teach others to do the same. We can think of no other photographer in Canada (or the world, for that matter) who has done so much to raise landscape and nature photography to an art form and to encourage photographers to express their creative vision than Freeman Patterson. Many of you will know Freeman and will have been influenced, inspired and moved by his work. Freeman’s influence weaves through both Sam and my work and our teachings. Indeed, we think that subconsciously Freeman’s influence germinated the seed which became League. So who better to honour with the inaugural Best of the League Award than Freeman Patterson?
For those photographers not familiar with Freeman’s work, we highly recommend you head to your nearest library or book store and pick up at least one of his many books on photography, creativity and seeing. Our three personal favorites and a must read for all expressive photographers are Photography and the Art of Seeing, Photographing the World Around You – A Visual Design Workshop and Embracing Creation. We also highly recommend any of his life-altering (no exaggeration) workshops – anyone who has been on a Freeman workshop will talk and talk and talk your ear off about how amazing it was!
Talking creative expression is all the rage in photography right now especially in the wake of all the fascination with the gear of digital capture. But Freeman laid the foundation long ago by teaching photographers to embrace their creative self. So much of what is in vogue today by those teaching ‘creative vision’ is based directly or indirectly on Freeman’s early teachings. Thanks to Freeman we can all finally move away from gear and technique into what truly matters, create self-awareness and develop personal expression.
For all of Freeman’s influence, his respect for people and the environment, his tireless sharing and mentoring of photographers, and for his lifetime body of artful, thoughtful images, we are honoured to award Freeman the Best of the League Award! We are thrilled that Freeman shared with us a moving story and portfolio of images that will be published in League this September. Subscriptions to League end June 30 so if you want this collectible magazine on your book shelf subscribe now!
We’re excited to share with you something we’ve been working on for awhile now. Introducing the League of Landscape Photographers! It’s a new community of like-minded photographers drawn together by similar interests, beliefs and values such as:
- the belief that photography is an art form not a craft, and that photographers are artists and not mere technicians
- a passion for the workings and integrity of the natural world which is expressed not only through artful, mindful photography projects, but also adherence to a personal code of ethics
- the belief that photography should be valued at the same level as other arts when it achieves high quality expression – photographers should be paid for their work
It’s too easy to look around the world and only see destruction and displacement. It’s much harder to focus on all the positive efforts that are being made to counter and contain some of the huge problems of the day. It’s too easy to engage in trophy travel in pursuit of social media ‘likes’. It’s much harder to turn your lens toward capturing changes happening in your own backyard. And it’s too easy to throw up your hands, shrug helplessly, and declare nothing will ever change when photographers, especially landscape and nature photographers are out there on the land, cameras in hand…making a difference with their art!
What the League is Not
The League of Landscape Photographers is a bit different from other groups.
The League is not a charity, society or non-profit but a grassroots, self-identified, loose collection of people who have posted their own code of ethics or value statement about how they conduct themselves. To join, you post to the world your own code of ethics and a statement that you are a member of the League of Landscape Photographers. That’s it. There’s no gate-keeping based on your level of photography skills. There is no one collecting fees from you to join. You are a League member when you act like a League member.
The League is not a conservation group. Political agendas of all stripes have pushed public discourse into simplistic, zero-sum debates. The world is not black and white – it’s full of colour. Similarly, while League photographers may engage with environmental issues, they do so to challenge attitudes and push assumptions not provide either/or documentaries or knee-jerk reactions. The League of Landscape Photographers is a group of artists who use their art as a window into their personal landscape.
The League is not a calendar publishing company. One thing landscape and nature shooters have done well is bring to us stunning photos of the most glorious, enchanting and pure places on earth. The internet is crammed full of beautiful images with scenes apparently untouched by man. It’s gotten to the point where such images are almost dismissed, and the pursuit is on for the next best ‘wow’ image. But how helpful is this parade? League of Landscape Photographers dig deeper by directly addressing how humanity intersects and connects with the landscape. Instead of sanitized scenes devoid of reality, League members open their hearts to the realities in their communities and share with the world what their eyes are seeing.
It’s a Movement
We believe photographers, and especially nature and landscape photographers, are uniquely placed as artists to add thoughtful dialogue about contemporary woes. But they need a reputable platform for their work. Enter Part II of this announcement…we will be crowdfunding this spring to publish a high quality, art magazine featuring photography portfolios and projects of League members. This is it! This is the Big One for League members! Simply called League, this annual will be the vehicle of expression for many aspiring artists who have something to say about the world with their photography.
- Visit the League of Landscape Photographer’s website to learn more about the League, League magazine and for ideas on creating your own code of ethics.
- Post your code of ethics and join the League! Then get involved in the community by joining the League Facebook group or sharing on Instagram.
- Attend one of the upcoming events to help fundraise for League – or organize your own and donate to the campaign.
- Tell your friends! While not everyone is a photographer, we all love art. Be a patron of the arts by donating to the campaign. You can read more about the cost of publishing a magazine here. Join the League Newsletter for news and announcements – like the date sales open for League! Only a limited number of copies will be printed of the inaugural issue…make sure you get yours.
Camera clubs are excellent places for photographers to learn and share photography. In my own development as a photographer I owe much of my early inspiration, learning and excitement about photography to time spent in Images Alberta Camera Club in Edmonton. The friendships developed and the lessons learned have stayed with me through life. I have an abiding fondness for camera clubs, but there can be a dark side to belonging to a camera club….
As with any group effort, sometimes a little herd mentality may surface. And this way of thinking can stifle innovative or fresh ways of photographing – especially when it comes to image competitions. Over time, critiques of submitted images become increasingly formulaic; images that follow the ‘accepted’ rules of competition will score higher than those images that do not abide by these, dare I say it, sacred rules. Putting aside whether competitions are even healthy outlets for creativity, it seems that the ‘rules of photography’ espoused by most camera clubs reward conformity. In my experience, not much creativity happens when the first priority is conformity.
Let’s take a look at four ‘rules’ commonly trotted out during image critique sessions by camera club members.
What is the Subject?
It seems that every photo must have a centre of interest (watch yourself though – placing an object in the centre of your frame violates the superior rule of thirds). According to camera clubs an image needs to have something that we, the viewers, can define as a ‘subject’. No obvious subject? Then the image has failed. Abstract images that are simply about pattern, texture, graphic design or mood do not do well in photo clubs. Abstract painters like Kandinsky, Pollock and Miro would have a difficult time thriving under a regime that forces them to have an obvious subject.
Fill the frame!
One of the ways that camera clubs reinforce the idea of subject is to tell photographers to fill the frame with the subject. This rule makes sense in that many beginning photographers make pictures where it’s not clear what the photo is about or why they took the photo in the first place. Having photographers fill the frame with their desired subject of interest is an easy way to get photographers to make better images. If you fill the frame with the subject, then we will know what the photo is about – all other stuff is excluded. But if all we ever do is fill the frame with the subject, there is no room left to explore placing our subject in a broader environment to tell a contextual story. Many of the great environmental portraits we see in National Geographic or Life magazine do not ‘fill the frame’ but have a small subject in a sea of context. Try that in a camera club and you will hear, “Get closer and fill the frame!”
Make it Sharp!
In camera clubs there is a fascination with sharpness and detail. Much time is spent talking about the best sensors, the sharpest lenses and esoteric things like circles of confusion and hyper-focal distance. If an image is not tack sharp, it won’t win a competition. Period. I think this fascination is partly about gear and partly because most camera clubs are populated with the over 50 crowd who long for the 20-20 vision of their youth (trust me, I know, I also fall into this camp)! Some of the most recognized and historic photos of all time have not been sharp. Just think of Robert Capa’s World War II D-Day photos. These gritty photos succeed because the blur and grain give them the mood of being there. Ansel Adams famously said, “There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.” Of course we can reverse this idea and state, “There is nothing better than a fuzzy shot of a sharp concept.”
Shoot in Good Light
And finally, there is the fascination with light in photography. This makes sense because photography is literally ‘writing with light’. Light is our tool; the cameras and lenses just capture the light. So a pre-occupation with light is an occupational hazard in photography. Camera clubs tend to classify light as good or bad. Good light is the ‘sweet’ light of the ‘golden hour’ (the hour after sunrise and the hour before sunset). Any other light is bad. The reality is, as my partner Samantha likes to say, “There is no such thing as bad light!” There is either light that flatters your subject or concept or light that detracts from the subject or concept. Your job, as a photographer, is to choose the light that best enhances your idea for the photo.
The rules of photography that camera clubs follow are generally useful ‘guidelines’ for making stronger images. But like any rule, followed religiously the rules become constraints and shackles to creativity. You obviously need to know why rules work so that when you break them you do so for creative effect. I wish that camera clubs would look beyond the rules and just look at the heart of each image. If it resonates in spite of ‘flaws’ it is a good photograph. I’ll end this article with another Ansel Adams quote which nicely sums everything up: “There are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs.”
We’ve all heard the old saying: “It’s not the camera that makes the picture, it’s the photographer.” Why in music isn’t there a similar refrain? “It’s not the piano that makes the music, it’s the musician.” Or in art? “It’s not the brush or the paint, but the painter.” We rarely care about what brand of brush an artist uses; we care about the art produced. So why is it that, invariably, the first question asked of photographers is, “what kind of camera do you use?”
We think the problem with photography is that photographers use a tool that records images directly from reality. There is no implied ‘interpretation’ in using a camera. It’s seen as a device which objectively records the ‘real’ world. As such, we think that the better the recording device (the camera), the more accurate the reality, and therefore the better the photograph. And so it goes. As photographers we become obsessed with getting better and better gear. Our camera, lenses and accessories become the ends to the means and the means to an end. We become slaves and lovers of the technical aspects of the endeavour. Art is forgotten if even acknowledged at all.
In photography we are less likely to think like an artist. An artist uses his or her tools as a means of inner expression. Art is about telling the world who you are and what you think. Art is not reality; it’s an interpretation of your personal reality. Photographers mistakenly believe that the more they know about gear, tools and technique, the more accurate their representation of reality. Of course, nothing is further from the truth. Obsession with gear and goodies only gets in the way of communicating any message whether that message is journalistic or artistic. In photography we spend precious little time developing vision and voice. Mostly we just want to play with goodies.
For photographers who want to advance beyond gear obsession into the realm of artistic expression, we recommend several approaches:
- Take a bare minimum of gear with you on photo outings. We have written about this before but remind you about taking only a camera and one prime lens like a 50mm lens to help you hone your ability to see and express yourself with a single tool.
- Think of your photography not as a hunt for single trophy shots but instead in terms of a project. Pick a topic (e.g. garbage, trees, puddles) or a conceptual theme (isolation, power, contrast) and develop a body of work that speaks to the topic or theme. Project-based photography will help you concentrate more on the message than the medium. Gear quickly becomes secondary and diminished in importance compared to artistic expression.
- Take a course in photography that is about leaning to see and expression. Avoid courses that discuss technique or gear. You want to exercise your creative expression and not your wallet. Buying more gear, software or camera goodies will not help you. Invest in discovering your creative eye. One option is our Resolve: Discover Your Creative Self eCourse which is targeted so that you discover what makes your creative clock tick.
- Instead of reading on-line reviews of cameras and lenses, book off a day a month to go to art galleries and check out paintings, sculptures and visual installations. Take a notepad and jot down why the art appeals to you or not. Relax and really look at the pieces. What is the art telling you about the artist?
- Don’t try too hard; let your subjects speak to you. Don’t force a technique or a conscious attempt at style. Just respond and soon your photos will be created from within and not as a result of blindly jabbing at the shutter of your high-priced optical recording device.
- Get off the camera control crutch. Go back to fully auto or program mode in your camera and just shoot intuitively. Don’t think, just respond.
Of course there is a lot more you can do, but hopefully these little exercises will get you off the obsession with gear and on to the discovery of your self!
Here at oopoomoo HQ we are getting set for a busy season of teaching, talking and taking (photos of course).
First up, we are thrilled to be part of a photo print exhibition on September 8 at Resolve Photo in Calgary. The print show is called RAÐLJÓST and the show features the work of fifteen local photographers who’ve traveled to — and fallen in love with — Iceland. Inspired by the Icelandic word “raðljóst” (which translates to “enough light to navigate”) the photographs seek to show Iceland interpreted creatively by each artist. Sam and I got a sneak peak at some of the prints going into the show and we are thrilled to report that you’ll discover an Iceland unlike anything you’ve seen before. And seeing these finely crafted prints in person reminds us that a key aspect of photography is not only posting photos to the web but also the tangible pleasure of viewing them as works of art in the form of prints. Some may even argue that the pinnacle in photography is a finely created print! Rather than show off the works here on the website we encourage you to come in person and enjoy the surprising views and luscious nature of fine art photographic prints of Iceland. For more information please check out this link.
Second, speaking of creative vision and personal expression, we want to remind you that oopoomoo will be in Abbotsford BC on October 22 to present our new show, “The Visionary Photographer”. In this show we’ll cover topics designed to take you into the realm of photographic artistry:
- The Confident Artist and The Art of Visual Perception
- Creative Lens Choice and Camera Controls for Visionary Photographers
- Advanced Compositional Patterns for the Visionary Photographer
- Personal Style and Creative Vision: The Metamorphosis of an Artist
Early bird pricing on this show ends August 31, so be sure to register soon if you plan to go. Plus we’d love to reconnect and meet BC friends old and new.
And finally, you may have noticed the fine work coming from students completing our 7/365 – The Mentored Photo Project eCourse. We are thrilled with the inspiring work of our students and have shared their July results. Watch for more awesome projects from our August students coming soon to the blog! If you have a photo project in you bursting to be seen, we have four private mentorships available this September.
Who Are you Creatively?
Why do you make photographs? Some people will answer that they make photographs because they want to document their travels or important events in their lives. Others are inspired by nature and want to capture this inspiration. And many use photography as a positive escape from the hectic rat race of life (a kind of meditation or mental yoga). But if we dig even deeper I think there is a universal desire, if not a need, for creativity. As kids we are all naturally curious and creative. Unfortunately, these traits get sapped out of us early on as we are taught the ‘values’ of practical education, work, consumption, and conformity. Many of us picked photography as a creative antidote for the homogenous pressures put on us by society.
But as we learn and practice photography, the ‘ought tos’ start to rear their ugly heads. We are taught about subjects we ought to photograph, locations we ought to visit, compositional rules we ought to follow. In short, over time, the very hobby we took up to express our creativity is stuffed into a box and turned into formula. We suppress our creativity and shoot just what others deem acceptable.
Every so often we need a reset, a reminder to get in touch with who we are and what our inner voice wants to say but that gets drowned out by the yelling of the outside world. Lately, I was feeling out of touch with my creative voice and felt that I was just repeating photographic formulas. My partner, Samantha suggested a little exercise for me to do that would help me determine who I am creatively. She showed me a variety of visual arts from painting to collage. She asked me to pick out pieces that I really liked and then had me write out answers to these questions about each piece:
- What do you think this picture is about?
- What do you respond to or find interesting in the picture? Why?
- Looking at the shape, line, form, texture and colour etc. used by the artist, how do these compositional and material choices help convey the essence of the picture?
Together we looked at my art choices and my detailed answers to her questions. We began to notice some themes, ideas, visual elements and even colours common to each piece. Sam suggested that these commonalities were the seeds of my creative voice. Frankly, I was surprised by the results because the imagery I liked was very different than the images I have become known for. But when I looked at my most recent work, there were little hints of this new voice trying to emerge; I was already beginning to use the themes, ideas and visual design elements that I had chosen in Sam’s exercise. It became obvious that I no longer knew myself creatively. Indeed, I had changed significantly but was still trying to force myself to shoot in my old ‘style’. No wonder photography was feeling strained lately. Now that I have discovered with Sam’s help who I am as a creative, the world has opened up for me again. Photography is a playground and I have given myself permission to play once again.
So if you are feeling a bit lost with your photography, try Sam’s exercise and share and discuss the results with a good friend or fellow photographer. Better yet use the exercise on each other. Often someone else can see easier patterns in your choices that you may subconsciously deny or that you may not want to see. What often emerges from this exercise is the discovery of who you are as a visual creative. That is a powerful revelation. Now go discover your creative voice.
Many photographers have an agenda when they go out to photograph. Whether it’s to capture a portrait, a destination or a representation of a specific subject we often have a preconceived result in mind before we even press the shutter. We know exactly what we hope to capture and what we want the final result to look like. This is not necessarily good or bad; many of history’s best images came as a result of the photographer seeing the photo in their mind’s eye before the camera was ever lifted to the eye. When I look at my own favourite images, a significant portion were visualized in advance and my job was to make that visualization a reality on film or the digital sensor. But just as many of my favourite photos came about from serendipitous discovery and the most creative and refreshing of those discoveries came when I was just goofing around and playing with the camera, when I was experimenting with no serious intent in mind. I think many of us would benefit from not taking photography too seriously and just going out open-minded and ready to have fun. My best results at photographic play have happened when I leave the ‘serious’ gear behind and just respond with a point-n-shoot or small dSLR. I also abandon all the ‘should do’ photographic rules and techniques and just respond organically. It’s so freeing. Many times I just get junk photos, but just as often a gem emerges. I have no expectations either way but simply go out in the world in joyful play. Let me give a couple of examples.
Sam and I used to lead photographic workshops and tours in the Canadian Rockies based out of the Kootenay Plains and Abraham Lake. In the early years most photographers were just happy to be in this amazing locale and make photos of all the things that inspired them. Later on, images of the methane bubbles on Abraham Lake started to circulate on the internet and all of a sudden making images of the bubbles was on the bucket list of most photographers. Our job then became one of leading photographers to the bubbles in sunrise and sunset light so that they could achieve their preconceived result. Amazing images resulted but frankly they all looked pretty much the same. There was a sudden loss of desire to explore the area for all the other visual delights there. Instead there was a fixation on getting bubble images. I also kept repeating the successful bubble formula images because it helped sell workshops.
One day in between winter workshops I went out for a mid-afternoon walk with just a camera and a zoom lens slung over my shoulder. I remember walking the shoreline of Abraham Lake just chilling. I was beach-combing, picking up stones, pieces of ice and pine cones just like a kid. I spent some time balancing myself on one leg on big stones and then rock-hopping stone to stone. In short, I was in goofing-off mode. I was not even remotely thinking about making pictures. In fact, I wanted to escape ‘having to make photos’. I saw some fins of ice along the shoreline and wondered if I could squeeze my way under them. I managed to get under the plate-like slabs of ice and just lay there looking up fascinated with the texture of the ice. Every slight move of my head revealed a new kaleidoscope of wavy distortions. It was mesmerizing. I must have spent twenty minutes just jostling my head around before it dawned on me that I had a camera. A couple of snapshots later and I had some of my favourite images I ever made of Abraham Lake ice. The power of play revealed its creative power.
Here is another example of the power of play. I am a huge fan of dogs and so as a photographer it was not a big stretch for me to end up photographing ‘man’s best friend’. Anyone who has photographed dogs knows it can be tough unless you have an obedience-trained dog that will take your directed commands. Most dogs are not well trained which says more about the owners than the dogs, but that’s another story. I had some early success with my own dogs that had basic obedience training and, when people saw the images, some of them asked me to photograph their dogs. My expectations of how a dog photo session should go, well orchestrated with trained dogs, went out the window fast. I was frustrated, the dog was stressed and the owner was not happy with the results. The whole thing was not fun. The solution to the problem came when I dropped expectations, and just started playing with the dogs. Forget the damn camera! I worked fun back into my time with the dogs. And then I tried something unorthodox. I put the camera on program mode, turned on the auto-focus and the motor drive and just pointed the camera in the general direction of the dog while we played together. Most of the results were terrible but occasionally magic happened! In the film days this was an expensive experiment, but once digital came along, the fun was cheap and I could play even more. Samantha and I refined this ‘play with the dogs’ photographic approach into a more predictably successful technique which we discuss in our dog photography eBook, Sit, Stay & Smile. In the end it was play and the loss of expectations that resulted in fresh imagery of the dogs.
So… the moral is not to take yourself and your photography too seriously. Make room for play and go out and act like a kid. If you want more exercises in play and in creative discovery be sure to check out our Learning to See Workbook and free Born Creative eBook.
In our last blog post, Samantha tackled building a code of ethics in photography. In the end, we here at oopoomoo decided that the principle to promote the well-being of the things we photograph was a good guide to keep us on the right track ethically. If we are not promoting the well-being of our subjects then ethically we are wading into dark waters. Samantha compiled an extensive checklist of positive actions we could each take to keep on the ethical path. One of those positive actions was to ask permission before photographing an identifiable person. This statement had a number of photographers up in arms suggesting that to do so would kill the art of street and documentary photography. On the contrary, we think keeping the guiding principle of promote the well-being in mind will easily guide you as to whether you should push the shutter button or not. For example, we recently featured the work of documentary photographer Larry Louie and he always asks permission before photographing identifiable people and his photos are all the more powerful in veracity because he engaged with the people he photographs. In some rare cases not asking permission is OK if it promotes the well-being of the subject. Potential situations where this might apply might be war journalism where the need to document might outweigh the privacy of an individual. Our suggested positive actions were guidelines not commandments for you to blindly follow – we always encourage you to question and think for yourself. We hope our guiding principle of promote the well-being is useful to you in your journeys as an ethical photographer.
OK, so that’s our perspective. For a slightly different view on the ethics of street photography we present the guest column below by Amruta Mohod of PhotoWhoa. We would love to hear your feedback on this contentious topic in photography. Please note that the opinions and any errors or omissions in the article below are the sole responsibility of the author and PhotoWhoa.
Ethics In Street Photography; The Black, White And The Grey Of It
by Amruta Mohod
Photographer Joel Goodman’s striking photo of a Manchester street on New Year’s Eve was recently dubbed a ‘perfect picture’ with its painting compositions and conformity to the Fibonacci Spiral that the likes of Lenoardo Da Vinci employed while creating masterpieces.
Did Goodman seek permission from any of the subjects?
Image courtesy The Guardian
Image Courtesy Time Life
Ethically speaking, street photography is the most controversial branch of photography. Since the subject largely consists of people who are mostly shot candid, the question of ethnicity ubiquitously plagues photographers everywhere.
However, note that not every street photograph features a person in the picture or even have to have a street in view.
The idea is to have – as Wikipedia puts it – a human presence.
Another question often asked in connection with street photography is whether or not it should be candid. A lot of times your subject would be aware and even posing for a click. Does that then qualify it to be termed a street photograph?
There are different thoughts on this. While Matt Hart, UK-based street photographer and educator believes in going completely candid so as to not disrupt the natural composition of an image and keep it real, New York street photographer Michael Comeau feels he wouldn’t just startle his subjects if he doesn’t seek permission but might not even get the desired shot.
What’s right and what’s wrong?
Street photography blurs the line between the two, and it’s amply justified.
When it comes to ethics in street photography, every expert has his personal opinion, and swears by the implementation of the same in creating pictures the way they see it.
Like Ansel Adams said “You don’t take a photograph, you make it“, a picture – street or otherwise – says a lot about the photographer too. It’s his perception, thoughts, beliefs and ideologies all seeping to his work, which is why the concept of ethics varies too.
Come to think of it this way, just like ethics in general are extremely subjective, so it is with ethics in street photography. What might be right for one would be horribly wrong for the other and the other way round.
For instance William Klein’s pictures are primarily up close and personal shot with wide angled lenses.
He quotes “I photograph what I see in front of me, I move in close to see better and use a wide-angle lens to get as much as possible in the frame”.
He’s one of the legends in the field of street photograph and has given us some rather compelling clicks. A notable attribute in most of his work is that it tunes the viewer in. It’s like the viewer becomes part of the picture rather than being an onlooker.
True to his words, Klein had always gone for it. Clicked when he saw something that held a sense of a story, a palpable sense of identity and relation and overall a surprising yet perplexing perception of something banal. Like his May Day picture of an old lady surrounded by a small but eclectic group of different nationalities.
Image courtesy https://www.artsy.net/artist/william-klein
Echoing the same thought, is ace street photographer Thomas Leuthard who not only has made his mark with his street portraiture in a short time but is also eager to share his vast wealth of street photography related tips and tricks.
In his free e-book titled Street Faces he gives insights into the approach. He emphasizes on the right approach and how it can make or break your capture.
He also says that the average person doesn’t interest him, he’s always looking for that one face that stands out of the crowd, based on any parameter. But it has to be something captivating, a face that speaks without opening the mouth.
Image courtesy Street Faces
Most might call his approach unethical and even illegal but he sticks to it when it comes to street portraiture.
I never look them into their eyes, never ever (only through the viewfinder). I point my camera to the persons face before he turns his head. I press the button halfway down to pre-focus. When the person turns around, I press the button down and make 3-4 frames in a series. After 3-4 shots I turn around and walk away. Don’t talk, don’t look, I don’t do anything else…
And even legendary Garry Winogrand who is renowned for his artistic perception of the cacophony of American life, was famous for not seeking permission before a click.
To this date, the prolific Winogrand remains an inspiration for a multitude of photographers skewing towards street photography in particular, despite his evident dislike for the term ‘street photography’. But while he could have gotten away with his ‘don’t hesitate, just click’ attitude in the patriarchal 20th century, today his beliefs are not just more likely to be reproachful and angering but it can also pose a threat to a person’s privacy.
Changing Technology and Ethics in Street Photography
There are tons of websites that feature random ‘street photographs’ of people caught unawares. And given how Smartphones have made a photographer out of each one of us, it takes only a few minutes to click, upload and taint a person’s reputation.
This is the area where ethics in street photography need to be discussed closely. The question of consent and the question of intention both determine whether an image is fit to be called a candid and honest street photograph that the public would smile and say thank you for one or that would get you sued or at least beaten up.
Street photographers (majority of them) agree that what they are doing is fine because what they’ve set out to do is create art.
But cut to today’s time when people are not just more wary of getting a picture clicked without their consent (for all the justified reasons) but they are also constantly captured and monitored through surveillance cameras.
So how do you find the middle ground in such contradictions?
Are you clicking that beautiful red-haired lady with a squealing newborn in one arm to show the realities of motherhood or do you intend to put it up in a dark space on the internet for the faceless chorus to go MILF?
The onus of clicking candid is always on the photographer, ethically that is. The legal viewpoint might differ depending on which country you are in.
Consent is an important factor, but when you are going candid and the subject has no idea they’re getting clicked is that ethical or unethical?
And when you are clicking a larger group, do you take each person’s consent?
And there’s also the question of whether taking consent still qualifies it to be called street photography or does it then become a portrait.
Some photographers consider them to be two different areas while some consider portraiture to be a sub-sect of street photography
Weighing in on the ethics debate, some photographers believe that educating the general public more on the requirements of street photography would help. Like if they knew they’d consent automatically like they do in case of CCTV cameras.
But that’s a theoretical concept. Come to think of it logically, this might make them more resistant.
There’s no way to use the idea of surveillance camera to justify street photography, it’s absurd and rather does more harm. Since there is a question of safety involved in surveillance captures, people don’t object to it. The same cannot be said for street photography.
But to some degree, there is a need for that; for a decent understanding of and exposure to street photography. And also the backstage work, requirements, and consequences in general.
Street photography is a form of creating art, actually more like recognizing art. Like Duane Michals puts it:
Photography is essentially an act of recognition by street photographers, not an act of invention. Photographers might respond to an old man’s face, or an Arbus freak, or the way light hits a building—and then they move on. Whereas in all the other art forms, take William Blake, everything that came to that paper never existed before. It’s the idea of alchemy, of making something from nothing.
What could make a street photographer click is subjective, it’s what they see traces of art in. And this is why they opine differently than their peers on the ethics of clicking street photos.
Although this area of photography is affected a lot by the changing times, laws and perceptions, it is not going to be banned or so we hope. Should there be a type of explicit or implicit mandates governing street photography is still hard to say. Like art, photography cannot be contained.
You cannot direct a photographer to click a certain way, it’s something natural and to a degree innate too.
But then should you disrespect or worse derogate an unknown person in the name of art?
Some general no-nos of street photography
Here is an attempt to round up some of the general what-not-to-do(s) in street photography from an ethical point of view. Some of these points might not resonate with some street photographers, well to each his own, but from a general point of view it’s better to not do any of these:
Take pictures of the subject in a compromising position – There’s only so much you can do in the name of art. When it comes to street photography, which is already polarizing, it is best to not take pictures of your subject which they would definitely not consent to.
This is especially important if you are clicking candid of kids. Even when done with the right intention, it would somewhere evoke the wrong response. Therefore, the correct thing to do is to not do it.
It’s better to ask consent of parents when you click a child – You don’t want to have an angry father at your throat or a scared mother calling the cops. If the parent is nearby, ask them permission to shoot a picture of their kid. Most parents don’t mind if you ask them the correct way.
If they ask you to delete, you delete – So someone not just caught you clicking them candid, they marched over to you and demanded you delete their picture, which you absolutely should.
Not only that, if you are going to follow the approach that William Klein or Bruce Gilden took – that of getting right in the face while shooting – then the chances of this happening is all the more. People don’t like their personal spaces tampered with, while some would give you a quizzical ‘what the hell bro’ look, some might actually create a ruckus.
So even after tackling the situation with tact, if they ask you to delete the picture, you have to absolutely do it.
Don’t interrupt their moment – If you think this is irrelevant when you’re shooting candid then you’re wrong. Just because a person isn’t directly aware of you shooting them, doesn’t mean he is completely in the dark. Take for instance what Leuthard does, he waits for an eye contact before clicking candid.
It’s rude and distasteful to interrupt and spoil someone’s moment just because you feel you’d get an amazing shot from that. Some subjects might make the shot better when they know a camera is on them but most would close up.
When we say ethics we mean morals that are accepted by a large group of people. Street photographers the world over believe that there is nothing unethical in their work but there’s no set consensus when it comes to ethics in street photography.
Click a picture with the wrong intention – There was some mention of intentions earlier, the talk of ethics become more prominent in situations where the intention had always been to defame or demean.
And that’s not art.
The question of ‘decency’ and consent make up for most of the ethics debate in street photography, but the only thing that can be said is if it feels right in your heart, click it!
Amruta , PhotoWhoa Team
I love writing about photography and keep it as simple as possible. When not writing about photography I can be seen watching TV and petting all the possible dogs in the society. (My husband dosen’t let me own one) and looking for new places to eat and review them. I also love to connect with new people across the globe hence you can always find me online on Skype. You can find me on Twitter here @amruta_mohod
With more and more people getting into photography, we at oopoomoo think it’s timely to open a discussion about ethical behaviour and field etiquette. It’s also about time we post a code of ethics here on oopoomoo.com. Here’s our first kick at this; we might modify the code from time to time based on your input and changing cultural values.
Let’s start with an underlying assumption: most people get into photography because they love to take pictures of people, places or creatures – and not to destroy them. Sounds reasonable! So this means that any harm caused when people take pictures is probably incidental either through carelessness or ignorance. So that’s why it’s a good idea to revisit the concept of ethical shooting from time to time – and especially as the digital revolution has brought the joy of photography to more and more of us.
First, we need a guiding principle. This is going to be the yardstick against which we measure all our actions. “Do I or don’t I?” should be easily answerable if we get this main idea right. An obvious starting point is that old idea ‘do no harm’ which is something most of us understand even if we’re not doctors taking the Hippocratic Oath. We learn this one early on, usually because when we hurt someone else, something bad happened to us. I hit a kid in the sandbox, he punches me back, or the teacher gives me a time-out. We just don’t seem to get far ahead if we go around harming things!
But is it enough? It’s morally neutral, at least. The status of people, plants and animals is unchanged. If you think about it, causing no harm is actually really hard to do and is almost impossible to measure! Just by stepping out our door we crush insects underfoot, trample grass and compress microorganisms in the soil. And let’s not even talk about the effects on pollution we produce when we travel somewhere to take pictures!
Maybe it’s impossible to do no harm in its most literal sense. We might as well stay home in bed with hot chocolate and Pride and Prejudice for the rest of our lives (which might even harm our health and sense of reality). In any case, do as little harm as possible also seems apathetic and vague. Who decides what is ‘as little as possible’? Does this change day-to-day, place-to-place and person-to-person? And how do we meaningfully measure harm? Such a moving target is not going to be a good guiding principle.
Perhaps then we should take things up a notch. Perhaps we should take a moral stance. Perhaps we should promote the well-being of things as our guiding idea, leaving them better off than before we took our picture. This at least might help mitigate any unintentional harmful effects our mere presence might cause! Our guiding principle would then be: “If I do x, will I leave my subject matter better off?” If the answer is “no”, then we should not do x; if the answer is “yes, I think so”, well then fire away!
Now, we could get hung up on the same problems as with the ‘do no harm’ idea: how do we measure ‘better off’? There really is no way to be absolutely sure, so part of being an ethical photographer must involve some amount of educated judgment. Note the term educated. Part of a code of ethics has to involve some obligation to inform ourselves and a commitment to doing our best. These at least move us in the right direction and keep us from being crippled on the couch with carby snacks and historical romances.
So we have our guiding principle: promote the well-being of the things we photograph. This necessarily includes doing our best at not harming things, and it also puts a positive obligation on us to engage with our subject matter in a way that makes it better off after our interaction with it. This might be as simple as inspiring public appreciation of the person, place or critter photographed. Or it might be as involved as a raising critical awareness through a life-long project to protect an endangered habitat. But by following our guiding principle of promote the well-being, we’re going to be on the right track. Also, actively thinking about your positive obligation in advance will make your decision a lot easier about whether to take the photo or not.
Nobody’s perfect. We both confess to actions in the past in the name of “I gotta get that shot”, that we now would not do. Maybe it’s maturity. Maybe we grew a conscience. What we do know is that we’ve been trying to follow this guiding principle of ‘promote the well-being’ for some time, and we can tell you we are more comfortable making our images and more proud of them.
By the way, if imposing a positive obligation on ourselves feels onerous, consider this: we don’t have a right to make a photograph. It’s a privilege. So let’s ensure we get to keep this privilege for ourselves and others by avoiding careless or ignorant behaviour. Photographers have been getting a bad name lately mostly because we all think we have the right to photograph anything, anytime and anywhere. We don’t. Let’s rise to a higher standard. Let’s set the bar above the level of ‘everyone else is doing it’. Let’s put our subject matter first and ourselves second. We bet that if we do this, our images will sing with sincerity and the photo industry will be a role model in the art world instead of its poorer second class citizen.
Enough of the grand theorizing. So what kinds of specific behaviours might our guiding principle of ‘promote the well-being…’ entail?
We’ve surveyed some photo organizations for their ethical codes (see below for links to some prominent groups – there weren’t many which says something right there), and the bulk of the actions can be distilled into three main areas: environment, social and self. We’ve summarized them and tried to put them in terms of positive actions. So here’s our proposed Code of Ethics:
This category involves the world around us, especially the natural world.
- Inform yourself and follow all rules and regulations when visiting a natural area or public attraction. These might include shooting distance to subjects and refraining from using certain kinds of artificial light or even photographing an animal or plant at all.
- Receive permission before stepping on to private property even if the property appears abandoned.
- Stay on designated paths and trails. If there is no trail, follow proper field etiquette by educating yourself on the principles of Leave No Trace.
- Aim for authenticity: photograph plants and animals in their natural habitat engaging in their natural behaviours.
- Research and inform yourself about the plants and animals you intend to photograph. Be aware of their distress signals, times of physical strain or breeding seasons, and avoid photographing plants and animals during these times. If you see any signs that your presence is causing stress, move back until the stress signals end or leave the area immediately.
- Leave the environment in a better way than you found it by picking up trash you find when in the field.
- Improve your photography composition skills by using your full arsenal of tools to make a great composition rather than moving objects, pulling plants or otherwise ‘tidying’ a scene for your composition.
- Move your position or patiently wait rather than attempt to influence an animal’s posture with catcalls, hoots or whistles.
- Remove all artificial attractants you find in wild places that were placed there by people to attract animals and refrain from baiting or placing attractants to entice wildlife to move to you. This is especially important with some large animals since they tend to be relocated or killed when they become habituated to humans.
- Refrain from sound baiting if its use may cause stress to the animal.
- With animals living in an urban environment such as songbirds, consider not putting out seeds as bait. If you do, research the proper natural organic food and follow proper procedures to ensure cleanliness of the feeder to minimize risk of disease. Place the feeder such that the birds will not be exposed to hazards such as predators under cover or at danger of flying into reflective house windows.
- Keep rare species safe and intact by not broadcasting the location of a fragile area, plant or animal. Remove GPS data from your images and refrain from sharing the location to others after the shoot.
- If by stopping to photograph, you are likely to start a chain reaction of other visitors crowding the area, do not stop but find another time or place to continue photographing.
This arena is about relationships with other people. So some sample situations are going to be interactions between photographer and client, photographer and tourists and photographer and photographer.
- Ask permission before photographing an identifiable person.
- Treat all people with respect.
- Treat your professional models with professional courtesy, repaying them with prints or fees for their work. Do not reimburse people where to do so would take advantage of their social or economic position or unduly influence them to pose for your picture.
- If you see someone violating the Code of Ethics, diplomatically attempt to educate them about the effects of their behaviour. If that person continues with their improper behaviour, document the situation and report them to the appropriate authorities.
- Be patient and courteous with non-photographers visiting a scene. Be creative by adjusting your expectations of the images you hoped to make and be open to new ideas as they present themselves.
- Be aware of your position and how it may interfere with the ability of the photographers and non-photographers around you to enjoy a scene.
- If someone inadvertently wanders into your scene, be courteous and wait if possible for them to move, adjust your own position, or kindly ask them to move their own when they are ready.
This category relates to how you personally internalize and live the Code of Ethics.
- Adopt a Code of Ethics and post it somewhere conspicuous to remind yourself to follow these important principles. Strive to adhere to the Code and commit to a lifelong education of these principles.
- Be an ambassador of ethical conduct in the industry through your own behaviour and by educating other photographers and the public about ethical photography.
- Know and respect your physical limitations and keep yourself out of harm’s way by avoiding situations where your health and safety or the health and safety of others could be put at risk because of your actions.
- Educate yourself about the weather, terrain, culture and possible hazards before visiting a new area.
- If you are leading a photo group, whether commercially or not, ensure that the group members are informed about the Code of Ethics, hazards and safety concerns and that the group size is appropriate to the sensitivity of the place you are visiting.
- Always be forthcoming about your processing and refrain from representing your photographs as something they are not.
Suggest a link to a good Code of Ethics in a comment on this post!