Every photograher's worst nightmare

It’s every street photographer’s worst nightmare. Despite what the law says and what common sense ought to lead an observer to conclude, taking a photograph in a public place that either directly or indirectly includes a child in the frame, often raises fear and suspicion in the surrounding public.  Most of the time, an entirely apologetic, friendly and sincere disclosure is enough to diffuse any grievance someone may have. The nightmare scenario is one where you as the photographer are confronted by an angry mob that refuses to be placated by this; the nightmare then becomes really quite frightening as the mob vocally and aggressively accuses you of the very worst transgression humans are capable of.

This is precisely what happened to me last night and it really did turn very ugly and very frightening.

There is a travelling fun fair in town at the moment. I had to drop my eldest son off at a scout camp sleepover and my wife had said I could have an hour with my camera afterwards and before putting our youngest to bed.

Fairs are great places for street and candid photography. They are a rich part of our cultural heritage and they show the best of people. They show people absorbed in the moment; they are about the carnival, the burlesque, the fun and frightening. And yes there are often a lot of children around so if you’re going to take photographs, it’s best to be respectful and sensitive.

This is the image that got me into trouble. It's not even that good!

This is the image that got me into trouble. It's not even that good!

I was taking some pictures of a large pink inflatable ball hanging from the awning of a stall with a young boy, dressed in very bright red football strip, standing a few meters behind it (and therefore mostly obscured by it) and playing with similar sized blue ball that was on an elasticated string. I was trying to compose a frame that overlapped the two balls and some of the red clothing to create an interesting image.

The next thing I know, four women were challenging me and accusing me of taking pictures of their kids.

Now, believe it or not, there is no law against doing that. Anyone of any age in a public place has no right to privacy and no power to stop anyone taking a photograph of him or her. Keep in mind that in every town and city, there are hundreds or even thousands of surveillance cameras constantly monitoring your behaviour.

In addition, I personally think that recording our social and cultural heritage is an important thing, including photographing children, but I understand not everyone agrees so I always take a deferential approach in response to being challenged. I have been challenged before, not about photographing a child as I don’t tend to take photographs specifically of children (precisely because it can cause such angst), and this approach has always worked to diffuse the situation. In most cases it has even resulted in a formally agreed portrait and an encounter with another human being that left both parties edified, our faith in humanity restored.

My immediate reaction in this instance was to apologise, to explain I wasn’t specifically trying to photograph their child, I was sorry if it had happened and that I would make sure that I didn’t take any picture in which their child would be in the frame. But that was not enough for them. They wanted me to delete all my pictures (and their tone was even at this point particularly nasty and vindictive) and prove I’d done so. When I refused it pretty quickly turned very (and I really do mean very) nasty indeed.

Child with a toy hand grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C. Copyright © 1970 The Estate of Diane Arbus

Child with a toy hand grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C. Copyright © 1970 The Estate of Diane Arbus

At this point I tried to diffuse the situation by walking away but this only seemed to make things worse as they started to follow me and become increasingly aggressive and accusative. Within a few minutes I had a gang of about six women, including one from the carnival itself (I suspect the others were just visiting), all pressed full up against me screaming that I was a pedo, a pervert, that I was going to take the pictures home and have a w**k over them. They threatened to call the police and I invited them to since I know I’ve done nothing wrong (on reflection I should have just called the police myself). The situation was finally diffused when I backed down and walked away on their demand. Obviously I’m not going to pick a fight with anyone, let alone a group of vicious, baying women backed up by the young men from the travelling community that were by that time taking an interest in what was going on. I have nothing against these people but I’m also well informed enough to know that their willingness to engage in a fight is equal to their capability in one.

It was incredibly upsetting. I am entirely sensitive to their concerns and fears but I am also not about to start kowtowing to vicious and unreasonable demands especially when their motivation is pure hate and vile bigotry. I felt pretty shaken up. To have such horrible things thrown at you in such a brutal and public way, to be presumed to be something so utterly repugnant and so counter to who you really are; it’s truly horrible.

Over the last 12 hours I’ve thought a lot about whether what I did was wrong. I guess in one way I was photographing their children; they were in the frame after all and they were a dynamic part of it. But the intent of the photograph was entirely harmless, honourable even. My photographs probably aren’t important in the same way that other well known documentary photographer’s work are but my intent is still honourable and motivated by truth, beauty and love. 

There are also thousands of pictures of children everywhere and even without the photographs the eye sees and the mind remembers. We create photographic memories of everything around us simply by looking; if someone did have a subversive intent it would be far easier to simply look and remember so what possible additional evil intent could there be by taking a photograph of a child, either deliberately or by accident?

Copyright © Sally Mann. All Rights Reserved. Sally Mann's work is heartbreakingly beautiful and wihle the images she made were all of her own children, she has received a lot of very vocal criticism because of the nudity they show. Some have even suggested that it is pornographic and tantamount to abuse.

Copyright © Sally Mann. All Rights Reserved. Sally Mann's work is heartbreakingly beautiful and wihle the images she made were all of her own children, she has received a lot of very vocal criticism because of the nudity they show. Some have even suggested that it is pornographic and tantamount to abuse.

If we are going to say as a society that you really aren’t allowed to take a photograph in which a child appears then where do you draw the line as to where you can and can’t take photographs in a public place and how are we going to police that? You would be criminalising an image simply because there was a child in it that had been taken without explicit consent. This is the point at which we lose a record of an entire generation and in the process, we lose an important component of our humanity, culture and society. But all of this is reasoned debate in response to a reasonable challenge and that was not what this encounter was about; that was something far more disturbing and upsetting.

I posted this account on a few forums I am a member of (not photography related) and while the majority of people were entirely defensive of my position, some did, perhaps not unreasonably, suggest that I really shouldn’t have been surprised by any of this and that perhaps I was foolish to have thought it reasonable to be a middle aged man, on his own, taking photographs at a fun fair.

On the one hand they have a point, but on the other the point is predicated on, and indicative of, precisely the kind of bigoted and prejudicial belief systems that lead some people to conclude 'she's dressed like a whore so therefore she's up for it' or 'he’s black, wearing a baseball cap and walking in a funny way, he must be a drug dealer'.

To illustrate the point, if you’re reading this and thinking that they do have a point, that a man taking pictures at a fair is very wrong, ask yourself if you would reach the same conclusion if I was female.  And if I had been female, do you really think the baying mob I was confronted by would have reacted the same way?

Arthur Fellig, popularly known as ‘Weegee’ was a photographer who specialized in ‘photographing pages from life’ in his own words. His photographs were never posed, and he made it a point to do masterfully capture true moments of life.

Arthur Fellig, popularly known as ‘Weegee’ was a photographer who specialized in ‘photographing pages from life’ in his own words. His photographs were never posed, and he made it a point to do masterfully capture true moments of life.

I'm entirely sensitive to their response, which is precisely why my immediate reaction was to try and diffuse the situation with an apology and a reassurance that I wouldn't take any pictures where their children might end up being in the frame. But I draw the line at being instructed (really rather aggressively) to delete my pictures by anyone. No one has the legal authority to do that.

To be honest, if they had been polite about it, heck I'd even settle for purely civil, I would have done that. But this wasn't about anything other than hate, bile and vindictiveness. Where is society when you start pandering to the vicious baying mob? My pictures might not be that significant, but the values and beliefs that they are made with are and they are values worth defending.

Bright Young Things

A few weeks ago I saw a group of teenage girls walking through Horsham and was immediately struck by their incredibly self-confident expression of identity. The Transitions project has always been about exploring the process by teenagers and young adults come to understand who they are and how they want to project themselves in the world. Suddenly here were four young women who even by the age of 15 already seemed to have figured out significant parts of that equation and were confident enough to be outwardly expressing it.

It was one of those moments where I though ‘oh my word what a great portrait they would make’ and yet my own lack of confidence and self-belief almost stopped me from taking the picture. I’d actually let them walk past and almost lost them before I plucked up the courage to trot after them and suggest a picture.

I’m glad I did, I’m really happy with this picture and the story it tells of the process we go through trying to figure out who we are, how we fit into the world and how that process can be both incredibly exciting but also terrifying.

'Sisterhood'

'Sisterhood'

I asked the four friends to simply stand together in any way they wanted, to hold themselves in a way they felt comfortable and let the picture be just what it is. Of course, when someone points a camera at you, the result is to a large degree an artificial construct but it is still the truth in that moment and that moment is still the product of who you are. So what we see here is true; it’s authentic in its portrayal of the varying levels of self-confidence that the four subjects show.

'The Brown Sisters' Photograph: © 2014 Nicholas Nixon

'The Brown Sisters' Photograph: © 2014 Nicholas Nixon

This group are curious and interested but still apprehensive. I had the sense that while this curiosity coupled with apprehension was the result of moment they found themselves in, it is also strongly reflective of where they are in life. The growing sense of self-understanding is just peeking through and there are very clearly big differences in who these bright young things will grow up to be. But they all stand close together for security; an act of ‘sisterhood’ strongly reminiscent of ‘The Brown Sisters’ (which you can read about here: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/nov/19/nicholas-nixon-40-years-brown-sisters-portraits-moma )

Fast forward a few weeks and yesterday while taking a late lunch and walking through town I saw this group of four boys out after school. Again, the idea of a group portrait came to me and while nerves again piqued my self-confidence, the idea of taking a contrasting image was compelling and motivated me to approach them. These boys are the same age as the girls in the other photograph (15 or thereabouts) and yet there is such a striking difference in the way they present themselves to the camera. The contrast in gender roles here is really fascinating.

'Brotherhood'

'Brotherhood'

The space between them is the most obvious feature; where the girls a huddled together for security and in response to friendship, the boys keep a distance between them (and just how uniform that distance is also noteworthy, suggesting that there is an unwritten code that governs what is a minimum safe distance). They are trying to project a greater sense of power and confidence; the overt hand gesture that emphasises the genitals of the subject second from right; the clichéd defiance of the 'bird' gesture by the boy on the far right; the desire of the subject second from left to hide his identify. One of them had clearly deliberately left his facial hair unshaven as a way of projecting his nascent masculinity and all of them walked with that characteristic swagger of shoulders dropped backwards and the groin pushed forward.  

And yet these are still just teenage boys, out walking their mate’s dog and trying to figure out who they are in the process.

 

Competitions Are For Horses

About three years ago, just as my photography journey was starting to feel like it had something more serious to offer, I asked a friend whether he entered photography competitions.

‘Competitions are for horses not artists’ he replied.

Even then my friend was an ‘accomplished photographer’ by virtue of having been published several times and shown in a number of exhibitions (he is even more accomplished now), so I was surprised by his answer. I thought a lot about it at the time but haven’t given it much thought again until this evening.

It’s an interesting metaphor. Not only does it perfectly highlight the, at best incongruous, and at worst blatant hypocrisy of trying to objectively judge an entirely subjective medium, it also highlights the demeaning nature of such efforts.

Horses, while noble and beautiful are still just animals. They may well experience consciousness, who can tell (heck I can’t even prove that the person sitting opposite me is experiencing consciousness), and people, through their relationship and bond with them, may have found inspiration and insight into the meaning of life as a result. But to the best of my knowledge, no horse as yet has composed a beautiful symphony, written a sonnet or carved stone in a way that makes you cry.

Horse racing is base. Art is not.

This is the image I entered. I thought it was pretty good but apparently it's just an also ran.

This is the image I entered. I thought it was pretty good but apparently it's just an also ran.

So if that’s the case why am I sat on a train now, on my way home from a relatively minor photography exhibition and competition in which over 150 images were shortlisted and feeling pretty shit that my submissions were not.

There were some brilliant works on show. One has even previously featured in this year's Taylor Wessing exhibition and is of course brilliant (though I think is a bit cheeky if you’ve already won a major accolade to then hawk your work round other far more minor exhibitions). There was also work I’ve seen recently in the BJP and one portrait in particular really stood out for me for its power and bolt of lightning connection in the eyes of the subject with you as the viewer.

But many looked like the curators had been given a night off and the selection left to the horses. I found myself thinking ‘how the hell did that get selected but mine didn’t; is my work really that weak? Inevitably the self-doubt starts to creep in and I can hear the clock counting down to the point at which this edifice of self-esteem that I am, in all honesty, building on this pursuit of truth, beauty and love, comes crashing down into the pretentious heap of a mid life crisis. I keep trying to convince myself that that's not what's been going on but there's a very good chance it is.

I texted my friend for some crumb of comfort. He’s even more accomplished now having recently made the short list for the Sony World Photography Awards, whittled down from around 150,000 submissions to the last 40 or so. He even had the temerity to submit a portrait even though he says he’s not remotely a portrait photographer. He’s a bastard of course but he’s also a dear friend and because his work has been externally validated, his opinion matters and counts a great deal and not just to me.

The crumbs were plentiful, enough even for a small cake.

‘Competitions are for horses’ he said again. ‘Don’t take anything from it, most of the time the curators don’t even know what they’re looking for; your work is fabulous and you have an energy and drive that I’m incredibly envious of’.

They were good crumbs, as I said, he’s a good mate and has been something of a mentor to me that last few years of this photographic journey. But still, this need for external validation exists. It cries out to be nurtured like the thousands of pouting teenage selfies I see on my Instagram feed, all desperate for affiliation, actualisation and validation. I’m no different.

The New Masculinity

One of the trends I've noticed in the millennial generation (based on the 'Transitions' project though this is not taken from that) is the shift of male sexuality away from being quite so polarised between gay and straight, towards a more ambiguous, less rigid interpretation. It's not that more men are likely to self-identify as bi-sexual (though that might be the case, I don’t know), more a trend towards not feeling the need to be quite so demonstrably 'straight'.

The insecurity associated with ambiguity is disappearing. In its place is a more nuanced expression that allows for the boundaries to be a little blurred. Women have long been OK with this flirtation; it's always been something that was permissible, perhaps even encouraged. It was incredibly risky for men to do this.

The two guys in this image self-identify as straight, yet in the context of a long night out in Brighton (which is known as the gay capital of the UK), after a lot of fun, in the early hours of the morning and in response to a random photographer goading them a little, the new masculinity is able to express itself like this.

I think it's something to be applauded (the expression, not the photograph, which is sadly compromised).

The things you see on Brighton Beach on a Sunday morning at sun rise

The sun rises over Brighton beach around 5am during the spring and summer months. I am there for a Sunday morning but the revellers are there still for Saturday night. Along with the revellers you can find the die hard swimmers tiptoeing down the shingle for their early morning swim entirely unaware of both the bitingly cold temperature of the water and the sprawling hedonism around them. It is, truly, a wonderful place to be. There is a sense of collectivism and love and its hard to know if the groups of people sitting on the beach are formed on the basis of long held friendships or simply the result of being caught up in the moment, of the shared experience of simply being there as the sun rises.

As an observer of these groups, it’s hard to know if you are yourself an outsider invading someone else’s space. The fact that I am there for Sunday morning and not Saturday night and I am on my own, does seem to set me to one side. I don’t know if the apparent intrusion of a man with camera will compromise this project but I am happy to find out. Last summer, I spent a few early morning talking with different groups, sharing ideas, photographing their moments. This has inspired me to create this new project, which I will work on over the summer. I want to capture the moments that make this time and place so special. I will be heading down on a Sunday morning whenever I can, aiming to arrive just before sunrise. I'll try to become part of the scene but I know that this will be difficult.

As for this image, a lot of people have asked me how I got it, was it staged, was it chance, what’s the story with the characters in the frame. I don’t want to spoil the magic and charm of the picture by explaining it; I think that it explains itself more than enough. Part of the skill I have been trying to learn is the ability to coax an image into life. Jane Bown was famous for saying that she doesn’t take pictures she makes them and that’s kind of what I was trying to do here. I had a sense that this couple wanted to do something outrageous and I simply coaxed that feeling out of them. Life is all around us but a lot of it remains hidden. If you can engage with people in a way that lets them open up and show you what they really feel inside, like for instance some latent desire to get naked in public, then that’s not staged, that’s spontaneous. And if one of their friends happens to get in on the action because they are also in the moment, a moment that was a strong mixture of happiness and sadness, a goodbye party before the friends parted to return home to Spain, then who am I to stop him?

The Picture I Would Run into a Burning House to Save

A very good friend of mine asked me recently what I was trying to achieve with my photography; what was I striving for and how would I know I’d achieved it? I showed her this picture of a boy with a dandelion by Laura Panack and said that if I could ever take a photograph as close to perfect as this I would be very happy. 

Boy with Dandelion - Laura Panack

Boy with Dandelion - Laura Panack

For me the perfection of this image lies in the fact that it distils and presents such a pure visual representations of our humanity. There are many other images taken in either fine art or perhaps more commonly documentary styles that present more obvious or visceral representations of humanity. Certainly there are more iconic images that anyone might immediately recall as being synonymous with the subject. But for me the genius of this image lies in the ordinariness of the moment that makes it easier to connect with personally.

The lighting is the first thing that really draws you in to the image. It has a softness that gives such a wonderful gradation of tone and colour and makes the image feel very organic; it’s melancholic but not sad. The quality of the light is complemented by the delicacy and toning of the boy’s skin, almost like it, and the image, is breathing. That probably sounds odd, describing an image as ‘breathing’, but in my head that really gets close to how this image looks to me and makes me feel.

The boy, seemingly poised at the moment of exhalation, wonderfully mirrors that idea and his careful scrutiny of the delicate beauty of the dandelion before his own exhalation gently blow the seeds away is a wonderfully sensitive moment. You can see his fascination and engagement with something so wonderfully delicate but otherwise so ordinary. And that is where the humanity lies for me; in the deep personal engagement and the delicacy of an otherwise ordinary moment.

Having been a small boy once and having known and experienced the deep sense of insecurity and pain associated with that time, the fact that the subject is who he is and is the age he is, is also poignant and meaningful for me. That is of course a very personal thing; an interpretation based on personal experience that only I could bring to this image (but isn’t that the final and most important aspect of all art?) But still, the fact that most boys of this age are hugely self-conscious and the photographer has managed to capture such a delicate and involved moment of this small boy, without even a shirt on, speaks volumes about their ability to engage with a subject and build trust. Again that reinforces the humanity of the image.

What I learn from this that helps me understand my own work better and myself as a person is that the photograph is only part of the output of my work, and perhaps of any photographers work. The process of engagement, the insight and understanding of other people and therefore of myself is every bit as important as the resulting image. I’ve met a few photographers recently whose portrait work I have previously admired but when engaging in conversation with them it’s become apparent that they only really care about the image. The subject and the process by which they engage and the story and insight gained seems less important or not important at all and I’ve found that disappointing.

My instincts are telling me that the best pictures come from those subjects you end up making an emotional connection even if just at a superficial level. In that single brief moment there has to be a sense of the subject as a person with a past and a future, with memories and remembrances and hopes and fears and everything else that makes us people. Most of this may remain hidden from the photographer but there still needs to be an acknowledgement of them in order for the portrait to really work. I always want to leave having learned something about them and want to remember that and keep it as important.

B&W Images and Cloying Sentimentality

I was recently discussing the virtues of B&W photography (and the use of grain in the image). The question posed was how well the images shown below would work if they had been shot in fine grain Kodachrome 100 rather than the high speed B&W stock used.  

'Shell Shocked Marine'; Don McCullen

'Shell Shocked Marine'; Don McCullen

I thought it an interesting question. My experience thus far is that in general if a picture works well in B&W, it is also likely to work well in colour even if the colour version doesn't work as well as the B&W version.

But I’m not sure that the reverse is not true; it's much harder to get an image to work well in B&W than colour and a good colour picture can lose all its value and impact converted to B&W. I think this is mostly because B&W is reductionist in its information and you therefore place much more emphasis on the balance between light and dark as being what makes the image work. You really have to be skilful with the light and that's probably the hardest part to get right, either because it's completely beyond your control or where it is in your control, it's actually really hard to do.

Landscape; Don McCullen

Landscape; Don McCullen

I've also noticed (and been guilty of myself) a trend towards people converting otherwise dull or boring images into B&W and adding some effects and grain to try and give the image impact and grit. B&W tends to have the effect of sharpening the image but neither this nor the 'gritty' look are anything other than superficial.

The McCullen shot of the Marine with thousand yard stare would, I think, work extremely well on fine grain Kodachrome 100 (assuming there'd been enough light to shoot it). I think the muted camo green combined with the dirt and grime of war would have given a very powerful palette and conveyed a greater sense of being there. I'm not actually sure that it being B&W adds very much since the image's strength is not on the interplay between light and dark, it's on the impact of the moment of human experience and the vacancy in the soldier’s eyes (it was taken after the batter of Hue, aka the Citadel where I think McCullen was also wounded).

The landscape shot though is quite different and I think only works in B&W (where obviously there is no colour version to compare it to but one can imagine). It also works best with the course grain high speed film used. The image works on a number of levels but the interplay between light and dark; the shimmering of the wet road leading into the horizon, set against the dark ground and the light of late winter sky is perfect. It's just the kind of landscape I love. Interestingly I think the landscapes that McCullen's been doing in his later years are perhaps among his best work. I love how the sum of his experiences are being distilled into the images and reflected back. I've read interviews and watched the brilliant documentary about him and it's very apparent that he does not want to be remembered as a war photographer. Landscapes as a genre have developed into something of an over romanticised subject lately, a fact underscored by the dominance and popularity of colour landscapes and the cloying sentimentality of over processed HDR images or even just well balanced images made using graduated filters. Personally I much prefer there to be ‘too much’ shadow on the lands in order to preserve the clouds in the sky (where by too much I simply mean more than might otherwise be considered perfect).