In perusing the work of other photographers recently I came across a guest post on a photography blog/website that was causing some controversy. The photographer had posted a series of images taken with the new Hasselblad X1D while traveling in Bangok, among them the shot of the beggar you see here, posted along with the caption underneath it.
In response to the post there were numerous comments about how appropriate it was to photograph someone in such a situation. This is a perennial debate among photographers and lovers of photography alike; to what extent does photographing the homeless and the destitute represent salacious, perhaps even scopophilic, objectification; is such a photograph only ever exploitative even if taken with full consent?
In this particular instance I think the answer is yes. This is bad image, not just poor (because it is also a poorly executed image), but bad because it does objectify the subject and reduces their problems almost to the point salacious voyeurism. This is the case for a number of reasons:
The angle and composition elevate the height of the viewer so that we are, quite literally, ‘looking down’ on the individual and shot is taken completely candidly i.e. without consent (although of course this is a contentious subject that I have myself been in the midst of previously). As a consequence, all the power inherent in the narrative lies with the observer/photographer; the picture lacks any evidence of empathy, compassion and humanity and, were it not for the quick glance of the subject into the camera at the moment the image was taken, it would reduce entirely into voyeurism.
Furthermore the caption that the photographer adds does nothing to counter this detached and unsympathetic perspective. Quite the contrary, it actually seems representative of an ambivalent attitude entirely lacking in empathy and humanity.
But by far the greatest transgression made by the photographer (and this is also the more interesting point) is that he chose to take this picture with a camera that costs over £12,000. To give that some context, the average blue-collar worker earns about £185 a month, so this camera and the lenses combined represents five and half year’s salary. This might not be so bad if the post in which this image was displayed had not been specifically about that camera and how amazing it is.
I cannot deny that I also have very expensive camera equipment and so spending large sums of money on such things is not inherently bad in my view. There are some basic truths about how economies work and the income I’ve been afforded is not down to me chasing that income but down to choices about what kind of career (sales) I wanted to pursue. I’m also fortunate that my wife has a well paid professional job (pilot).
I also do take photographs of people who are homeless but I never take their picture simply because they are homeless (and therefore less able to assert a position of power by objecting) and it is always taken after having engaged with them, learned about their situation, empathised and asked permission.
I’m conscious that I am virtue signalling and my aim with this post is not to do that or to debate the rights and wrongs of taking pictures of the homeless. It is however to make this point.
Photography for me is about engaging with and representing our humanity; our sense of self, our sense of value and meaning. It is about being of consequence. It is a struggle with existential angst and trying to overcome that by engaging with our humanity.
Being homeless and destitute would, I can only imagine, elevate that sense of angst and nihilism to extraordinary levels. To be invisible as a person and therefore of no consequence would be my ‘Room 101’; it would probably drive me into insanity.
I’ve come to know a few people in my home town who are homeless and by engaging with them, I’ve learnt that the most valuable contribution I can offer them is a recognition of their humanity. When I take their picture, I print them and share them and they appreciate this because it is a tangible record of that humanity. It is hard evidence if you like.
If there is a problem with photographing the homeless it is not the photograph that is the problem, it is the process by which it was made. But then isn’t that what the meaning of ‘art’ really is?
It is the process that counts. It’s what was in your heart at that moment that carries the most value.