An assignment this past week for my Media Practices: Concepts class got me thinking about artistic ethics, in particular the ethics of photographers in documenting the places and people around them. There are a lot of interesting issues raised when one wields a camera. I remember one of my photography teachers at Penland, the artists community in North Carolina where I’ve taken several summer photography classes, had an Ani DiFranco quotation tattooed on his arm–“Every tool is a weapon if you hold it right”–and he told us that he tried to be always conscious of this idea in his work as a photographer. Indeed, I think that as much as a camera can be a force for great creative production, social good, documentary information, etc, it can just as easily become a hostile object, a “weapon”, a point of division between photographer and subject, between photographer and place, etc. In fact, sometimes I think it’s possible that it can be both simultaneously (think war photography as an obvious example).
The assignment that got me thinking about some of these issues again was one of three options for a photographic exploration. Option number 2 asked the student to take a subway line from one end to the other, documenting your journey, photographic your travel companions in the subway car, on the platform, etc. It’s definitely an interesting idea and I can certainly see the merits. The subway, as several people in the class discussed today when we presented our work, is an interesting netherworld with its own unique atmosphere, behavioral expectations and rules, etc. Our professor encouraged us to approach the project as a challenge, suggesting that by pushing ourselves outside of our comfort zones by doing something that made us nervous or uncomfortable, exposed us to possibly unwanted attention, we might achieve some very interesting and rewarding photographic results, and at the same time expand our comfort zones as engaged artists and individuals. I understood what he meant and it made real sense to me, and, in the process of deciding to go with a different assignment option, I thought quite a bit about whether my motivations were fear, shyness, cowardice. Ultimately, my decision not to do that assignment option was based on the fact that I don’t like people taking my photograph in public–I feel my privacy invaded and I feel disrespected, violated in a way. I thought about an incident recently when I was in the cafe at Barnes & Noble reading and noticed a man sitting by the wall who was photographing me, trying to be inconspicuous. At first, he was looking straight through the viewfinder, clearly right at me. Once I caught him doing this, he put the camera down on his lap but was still clearly taking pictures of me. I felt uncomfortable and a little angry and moved to an area of the cafe outside of his range (I hope).
Another example I thought of was some of the tactless tourists I’ve seen on various trips I’ve been on, in particular on my trip to China with a class in college. On that trip, we went to some remote and largely rural areas, and along the way stopped at several small villages at which we would all load off the bus and some of the other members of the group would begin snapping pictures of residents of the villages going about their daily tasks. The whole situation made me feel incredibly uncomfortable, and I felt somehow complicit in this sort of elitist, dehumanizing behavior. To me, snapping photos of people who are just trying to go about their business, without their permission, is a real disrespect and, as I say, a dehumanization of sorts. Holding a camera and aiming it creates a power dynamic that I think one always has to be conscious of and careful with. A camera can be a valuable tool, both for artistic expression and for documentation and exposition, but as my former teacher’s tattoo pointed to, it can also be just as powerful a weapon when used in a way that exploits the power inherent in the act of viewing, photographing, capturing. While, of course, I know that there is a difference between the kinds of behavior I’ve discussed and the subway assignment for my class, I think that some of the same issues come up for me when thinking about it.
I do understand the counterargument–I am the last one to argue that political correctness or related considerations should always trump artistic expression or documentary work. And I don’t condemn the choice to complete this assignment. In fact, I thought many of the results were really interesting and many people in the class found different ways to work around these issues and to engage those around them in the process either by straightforwardly asking permission or through more subtle means.
I saw in interesting documentary several years ago dealing with one example of the power of photography and its potential to be perceived as a weapon by those being viewed. The documentary, called Stranger With a Camera, examined the 1967 murder of Hugh O’Connor, a Canadian television journalist. O’Connor was one of many journalists and documentarians to come to Appalachia in the late 1960’s to look at the poverty and isolation of the region. He was shot by the man who owned the property on which he was photographing a coal miner, and the murder encapsulated the two sides of an ethical debate over the documentary photographic process. On the one hand was O’Connor, who considered his work an attempt to bring awareness to the plight of the people of Appalachia in an attempt to bring about rectification of what he saw as the exploitation and neglect of the region and its people. On the other hand was Hobart Ison, who represented the locals who resented the intrusion of these morally crusading outsiders into their community and the stereotyping and criticism they felt subjected to through their lenses. The camera became a weapon, the boundary between these two sides, the use of which was such an affront, such a perceived sign of disrespect and loss of authority that it drove a man to murder. It’s a fascinating story and the documentary raises a lot of the interesting ethical questions I’ve only just touched upon in passing here. I think for anyone working in media, the visual arts, journalism, and really almost anyone who owns a camera, these are interesting issues to at least be aware of and to consider.