Photographers’ favorite movies: A Survey

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In each issue of his magazine, Dog Food, Jason Eskenazi asks established photographers to list their top 10 movies as well as their top 10 books. Reading these lists, I always wondered if photographers had a different taste in movies than other folks in general. Do we usually go for the story, the dialogue, or the expected draw towards films with killer cinematography?

Dog Food has so far collected the answers of 41 photographers; that’s 410 movie entries. But for any statistical significance, the database had to be expanded. So I created my own survey. I set up a simple one on SurveyMonkey, asking participants to list their 10 favorite movies. I posted the link on my facebook page and the Flak Photo Network. It was important for it to be a blind survey, so to remove any possibility of bias with participants seeing the answers of other people. Compiling the list from the survey and and adding to the one from Dog Food, I had well over 800 movie entries.

From that database, I compiled the list below. These are the 25 films that were mentioned the most by participants, ordered from the least to most mentions, with the movie ranked first having been named the most. Wordpress autoplays slideshows by default, unfortunately. So make sure to pause it and rewind back to number 25.)

 

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Most names on this list were not surprising and I’ve seen a good deal of them. But I’ll admit that I had never heard of ‘Dead Man’ or Jim Jarmusch before, for example. So it’s a good opportunity to see this and other films I hadn’t seen or heard of.

This being said, I was surprised by some of the names that were absent from the list. ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ famously sits atop imdb’s list of top 250 movies, but was only named by a couple of people a favorite of theirs. In addition, there were barely any blockbuster science fiction or fantasy films. No ‘Lord of the Rings’ or ‘Star Wars’ or ‘E.T.’. I wonder if the sample is expanded even further, some people would name these movies.

As expected, the majority of entries in the survey were English-language films, 63% to be exact. However, 37% of films not in English is still an impressive figure, and I believe it’s indicative of the diverse tastes of the participants. In fact, there were movies in 30 different languages (aside from silent movies) that were written in in the survey.  The chart below shows the distribution of the entries across these different languages.

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Lastly in this post, for those who are interested in the ‘cinéma d’auteur’, I complied the list of filmmakers who had multiple films listed in the survey. There were 17 directors who had at least 5 movies named in the survey. The number 5 is somehow arbitrary; it was only chosen to keep the list manageable. As with the movies list, there weren’t any surprises as to who made this list. But I was surprised not to see Quentin Tarantino here, for example. Or Steven Spielberg, Bernardo Bertolucci, or Ridley Scott too for that matter.

Still, I’m not ready to call this survey ‘scientific’ in any way. So I won’t be calculating any margin of error yet. But I hope all these results will be enjoyable to those who read them and, more important, they would be a source of recommendation for good movies to watch.

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PS: the font in the title cards is a nod to the director with most entries in this survey, and my personal favorite. Cheers.

An evening with Koudelka in Istanbul

Koudelkas

Fotoistanbul 2015
Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University auditorium, Istanbul, Turkey
11 October, 7:30pm

The room is full, and dozens are sitting on the floor because there are no more empty seats. The mythical Josef Koudelka is about to show us his projects, followed by a Q&A session.

To many of us in the room, this talk was the main event of fotoistanbul this year, and we weren’t going to miss it for the world. And then there were a few of us who were still giggling like little kids, remembering our chance encounter with Koudelka on the street the day before.

Picture a bunch of street photographers, walking the streets with our cams, when a man walks to us to ask for directions to the train station. Realizing who he was, we stood there with our mouths open, mumbling like fools. That’s how legendary the man is. We rode the bus with him, each sneaking a few words, a group picture or two, before he finally got rid of us to continue his way. I had taken the opportunity to ask him about his visits to Lebanon shooting the Roman ruins, and he mentioned having spent quite some time photographing Heliopolis in Baalbeck. And then I went awkwardly silent.

Chance encounter on the streets of Istanbul
Chance encounter on the streets of Istanbul
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Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University Auditorium

Back to our auditorium, below are his answers on the various topics he was asked about during the evening.

Gypsies and Exiles

I photographed “Gypsies” with a 25mm wide-angle lens. I discovered this lens and it really helped me work in these little spaces where gypsies live. After 8 years, and after being totally done with the book Gypsies, I understood how the lens works and how I should use it. But I was starting to repeat myself and I didn’t like – and don’t like – to repeat myself. I wanted change.

So when I left Czechoslovakia a couple of years later, I started working on “Exiles”. But I didn’t work in these little spaces anymore. As a result, the gypsies in “Exiles” are different from those in the first book. I travelled all over to photograph them, but I never knew why. I tried to think about it, to come to certain conclusions, but I couldn’t find an answer.

Magnum and Henri Cartier-Bresson

Some photographers, especially those who left Magnum, don’t speak positively about the agency. I can’t say anything bad about it. To the contrary, thanks to Magnum, I became who I am today. But of course I was very careful to stay true to myself and not to get influenced by certain things.

Henri Cartier-Bresson helped me very much in that area. I met him in 1970 or 1971, and he was of extreme importance to me in helping me avoid the mistakes he did. HCB wasn’t really a reporter; it wasn’t his nature. But Robert Capa moved him in that direction. So the most important thing that HCB could do for me was to help me be who I was, and not fall for the compromises he had to do.

On photographing landscapes

I have been photographing for more than 50 years, and I’m finding fewer and fewer people I want to photograph. This is not to say that people are terrible or that the world is terrible. I’ve seen so many beautiful things in my life, and I’m very happy. But photographing people is very difficult for me now. I really want to be alone. I don’t want to see anybody around me. And I think that only when you’re alone you could start identifying with the landscape around you.

Photography Workshops

Many Magnum photographers are giving workshops and the reason is money. It’s becoming more and more difficult to make money as a photographer, and workshops help in that area. I never gave any workshops and I’m still alive. This doesn’t mean I won’t give any, but I hope I won’t have to.

This is not a criticism of the people who do workshops; not at all. I think it’s very good if the people who have the capacity to teach do so, especially if they like to be around people. I, on the other hand, like to be left alone. You know, after this talk, I’ll probably try to escape as quickly as possible. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a pleasure to be here and you’re all wonderful, but it’s difficult for me.

Wall: Israeli and Palestinian Landscapes

The last project I did, of which you haven’t seen any photos here, was in Israel. I didn’t know anything and didn’t want to know anything about Israel. I generally believe that if I go to a place, and if I look enough, and meet people, then I could understand, not so much through my brain, but through my eyes.

My Magnum colleagues warned me that it’s not easy to photograph there. But I finally went there and I’m very happy I went. After seeing the project, photos of the wall separating the West Bank from Israel, an Israeli poet told me: “Josef, thank you for your photographs, because you made the invisible visible”. He meant that the wall is invisible to Israelis and they don’t want to talk about it.

After having been there 7 times in 4 years, I came to the conclusion that Israel became what it didn’t want to become, and that Palestine has no chance whatsoever.

Turkey

I have been documenting Greek and Roman archaeological ruins in the countries around the Mediterranean. I visited all 20 of these countries twice, luckily including Syria in the period where I was able to do so. And of course I discovered Turkey, and discovered that it’s an archaeological treasure.

I’m preparing a big exhibition for 2017 in the Panthéon in Paris on all this work I did in the Mediterranean. The text for the accompanying book will be written by the director of the Louvre.

Even after all of this is done, I would like to come back to Turkey to continue to work; I’m fascinated by the place you have here.

The importance of being Candid: From Diderot’s 18th century Salons to Street Photography today

Is your photo candid or was it staged?

Ask a Street Photographer this question and you only have yourself to blame for the war of words that ensues. The indignations will run the spectrum. From “How dare you question my integrity?” to “Who cares if it’s candid or not? It’s either a good photo or it isn’t.”

Street Photography is not Photojournalism. The latter carries an implied ethical responsibility to showcase reality that the former does not. When it was uncovered that Giovanni Troilo staged a scene in his documentary series on Charleroi, Belgium, many demanded that he be stripped of his ‘World Press Photo’ first prize. Eventually he was, but supposedly for different reasons.

If instead these were the ‘International Street Photography Awards’, would the reactions have been the same after finding out the photo was staged? Yes they would have been. Without a doubt. So if Street Photography is an artistic pursuit and doesn’t have any inherent attachment to reality, why does candidness matter?

The short answer is: because Denis Diderot said so about painting around 250 years ago, and since photography is a young art form, it inherited all the rules from older art forms, mainly painting and theater, including Diderot’s ideals.

But the short answer isn’t going to cut it, now is it? Let’s trace our steps.

In 18th century France, the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture scheduled exhibitions, or salons, for its painter members in Paris. Denis Diderot, encyclopedist, art critic, and all around wunderkind, was asked to review these salons. He did so for over two decades, crystallizing along the way the tenets of the ideal painted scene in the Age of Enlightenment’s waning years.

Diderot disliked ‘mannered’ people and disliked ‘mannered’ paintings that included them as subjects. “Maniéré”, the word he used in French, is chock-full of negative connotations about artificial behavior. He saw pretentiousness as a “vice of regulated society”, and attributed them to ‘theatrical’ people who act one way when alone and the opposite way when they know they’re being observed.

He saw that the sure way to rid a painting of any affected characters, and thus to cleanse it from any ‘theatricality’, was to have its characters be so engrossed and so absorbed by the action they’re undertaking, that it would be impossible for them to notice they are being watched, and consequently incapable of acting artificially. The beholder — first the painter, and then the viewer — must disappear; the scene is not meant for their eyes. This self-forgetfulness, or oubli de soi, that the characters exhibit is the guarantee of the anti-theatrical ideal.

To showcase this pictorial practice, here are two paintings by Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin: Soap Bubbles, and the Card Castle.

Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, Soap Bubbles (Bulles de Savon), New York, Metropolitan Museaum of Art.
Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, Soap Bubbles (Bulles de Savon), New York, Metropolitan Museaum of Art.
Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, The Card Castle (Le Château de Cartes), Washington, National Gallery of Art.
Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, The Card Castle (Le Château de Cartes), Washington, National Gallery of Art.

In Soap Bubbles, the man is so focused on his task that he seems unfazed that his shirt is ripped near his shoulder. In the Card Castle, the ‘proof’ that the boy doesn’t know he is being observed resides in the open drawer in the foreground. His unbridled attention is directed towards the folded cards in front of him; he can’t see the Jack of Hearts, but we can. Given the medium’s limitations, anti-theatricality was implied through these compositional means, and it was left to the viewer to sense whether a character’s absorption is genuine or not, and whether the fourth wall separating the painted stage from the beholders is unbroken or not.

Jean-François Millet, L’Angélus, Paris, Musée d’Orsay
Gustave Courbet, The Wheat Sifters (Les Cribleuses de Blé), Nantes, Musée des Beaux-Arts
Gustave Courbet, The Wheat Sifters (Les Cribleuses de Blé), Nantes, Musée des Beaux-Arts

Diderot’s aesthetic ideals remained influential well into the 20th century, crossing over into other art forms. It isn’t known if philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein was borrowing from Diderot when he wrote the following in 1930, but it’s hard not to see the similarities:

“Nothing could be more remarkable than seeing someone engaged in some simple everyday activity, when he thinks he is not being watched. Let’s imagine a theatre, the curtain goes up & we see someone alone in his room walking up and down, lighting a cigarette, sitting down, etc. so that we are suddenly seeing someone from the outside in a way we can never see ourselves; as if we, so to speak, witnessed a chapter from a biography with our own eyes, – surely this would be uncanny and wonderful at the same time. More wonderful than anything that a playwright could produce to be performed or spoken onstage. We would be seeing life itself.”

It was only a few years prior that the 35mm camera had started becoming popular. It was portable, lightweight, and inconspicuous enough that photographs could now be taken without subjects taking notice and altering their behavior for the camera. Photography, the only medium that could genuinely put into practice Diderot’s philosophy and Wittgenstein’s view of “life itself”, was ready to take over.

In 1938, fresh off his work photographing for the Farm Security Administration, Walker Evans did exactly that. He took a seat on the New York subway, hid his camera inside his coat, and for three years he sought to capture on film the ever mysterious “quality of being”. In “On Photography”, Susan Sontag would corroborate: “There is something on people’s faces when they don’t know they are being observed that never appears when they do… their expressions are private ones, not those they would offer to the camera.”

Walker Evans, Many are Called
Walker Evans, Many are Called
Walker Evans, Many are Called
Walker Evans, Many are Called

The tradition of Candid Street Photography evolved in the following decades, reaching mainstream popularity following Henri Cartier-Bresson’s ‘decisive moment’. It was then that this tradition became closely associated with the Street Photography that we know today.

But after relying for centuries on ideals borrowed from different mediums, photography would have to wait until 1980 for Roland Barthes’ seminal book, “Camera Lucida”, to give Diderot’s notes on anti-theatricality their own photographic character.

Barthes essentially differentiated between what he referred to as the studium and the punctum. The studium is what the photographer intended to show us in a scene. It consists of the elements that might be interesting to us; those from which we would express a general liking of the photograph.

The second element is what breaks the studium. In the words of Barthes, it is something that “goes from the scene, like an arrow, and pierces me.” The latin word aptly used to describe this wound, this prick inflicted by a sharp object, is the punctum. He saw photographs that only had a studium and no punctum to be lukewarm, bland, and uninteresting. Because the studium was restricted to the photographer’s intentions. And he remarked: “Certain details prick me. If they do not, it is doubtless because the photographer has put them there intentionally.”

Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Faces
Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Faces
Thomas Struth, Hermitage 1, St. Petersburg
Thomas Struth, Hermitage 1, St. Petersburg

Roland Barthes’ view, however influential, remains one voice among many. Evidently, other artistic approaches to photography have attributes that Candid Photography is unable to match. There are even ethical concerns about privacy violations in an age where public surveillance is becoming increasingly common and intrusive.

However, Diderot’s remarks about theatricality being the vice of regulated society rings truer today than it would have at any other time. In our days where almost everything is staged: from public personas, to carefully manicured Instagram feeds and facebook timelines, to airbrushed selfies, candid photography seems to be a tiny antithesis to inauthentic behavior. This type of photography still shouldn’t aspire to show ‘reality’ the way photojournalism is supposed to, but it is obliged to remain firm in its portrayal of ‘realism’ when there are barely any sources left to do so. Otherwise, be candid; don’t call it Candid.


Sources:

  • Barthes’ Punctum, Michael Fried
  • La Chambre Claire: Notes sur la photographie (Camera Lucida), Roland Barthes
  • Staging Absoprtion and transmuting the everyday: James A. W. Heffernan
  • Les Salons de Diderot: théorie et écriture, Pierre Frantz and Élisabeth Lavezzi

Elliott Erwitt can kiss my ass (in New York)

The Skit

Last week I received an offer from the Strand Gallery in New York to show my latest body of work entitled ‘Everybody Sharts.’ It’s a collection of mixed-media pieces where I appropriate photographs, color them selectively, and doodle on them in order to express my artistic vision.

The pièce de résistance is this piece below:

Everybody sharts

When I first showed it to my agent, she mentioned Elliott Erwitt. That he’s the one who actually took the photograph. And that I’d be putting myself in a position to be sued by him. I told her, as the crass click bait of a title says, Erwitt can kiss my ass. I’d win the lawsuit and I will make mountains of dineros in New York without him getting a single penny. OK fine, in Vermont and Connecticut too, but let’s not go there. And… Scene.

So everything in my little skit is not true, except for the sad part that if I were to sell the above photo, Erwitt would, in fact, probably lose the lawsuit if he were to sue me for copyright infringement. On April 25, 2013, the United States Court of Appeals for the second circuit decided in ‘Cariou v. Prince’ that transformative art constitutes fair use and does not violate any copyrights. Bear with me.

The Case

Patrick Cariou is a French photographer who, in 2000, published a book called ‘Yes Rasta.’ He had lived among Rastafarians in Jamaica for six years, and the book was his collection of portraits and landscape photographs taken during that period.

photo by Patrick Cariou from the book 'Yes Rasta'
photo by Patrick Cariou from the book ‘Yes Rasta’

In 2005, Richard Prince, a well-known appropriation artist (as per the description of the court), came across a copy of Cariou’s book in a bookstore. He tore 35 photos out of the book and altered them by painting over the subjects’ faces, among other things. He then bought 3 more copies of the book and created 30 additional pieces. Prince prepared a show featuring some of the pieces he created and sold the catalog from that show. At no time did he inform Cariou that he is using his photographs nor did he take permission to do so.

Graduation, by Richard Prince.
Graduation, by Richard Prince.

When Cariou found out, he decided to sue Prince and the Gagosian Gallery where some of the pieces were exhibited. The Southern District of New York found that the use of Cariou’s photos by Prince does not constitute fair use. Prince appealed and the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled in his favor.

The Law

The Intellectual Property clause of the US Constitution states that the purpose of the Copyright is “[t]o promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts…” But, as Judge Pierre Leval said:

“[t]he copyright is not an inevitable, divine, or natural right that confers on authors the absolute ownership of their creations. It is designed rather to stimulate activity and progress in the arts for the intellectual enrichment of the public.”

This is where ‘fair use’ was supposedly born. As ownership could stifle creativity of others, a middle ground was found. For the use of a copyrighted work to be considered fair, four factors are looked at:
1- the purpose and character of the use.
2- the nature of the copyrighted work
3- the amount used from the original work; and
4- the effect of the use has over the market or value of the copyrighted work.

In the Cariou v. Prince case, the court mentioned that the purpose and character of the Prince pieces differ significantly from the aesthetic that Cariou presented, at least in 25 of the 30 photos Prince appropriated. As per the court documents: “Where Cariou’s serene and deliberately composed portraits and landscape photographs depict the natural beauty of Rastafarians and their surrounding environs, Prince’s crude and jarring works, on the other hand, are hectic and provocative.”

Consequently Prince’s art was seen as ‘transformative’ enough so as to constitute fair use of Cariou’s intellectual property.

The money

OK. So we played make-believe and talked legalese. That’s all for nothing. Let’s talk dollars, doubloons, liras, please.

When Cariou published his book in 2000, his publisher, PowerHouse Books made 7,000 copies. It was a single print and it’s now out of print. Of this first edition, 5,791 copies were sold, and Patrick Cariou made a little bit over $8,000 from his work.
Six years of his life spent living with the Rastafarians, getting to know them, photographing them, and all he made was $8,000.

Then comes Richard Prince and steals the photos without so much as an email to Cariou to tell him: “Bend over and bite on the pain stick; I’m going to do my deed.” I’m sorry, my use of the verb steal is not in its place. One steals food, but one appropriates art. So yes, Richard Prince appropriated Cariou’s photos. He exhibited them, and he sold his pieces. For how much you ask? For a whopping $10,480,000. In case zeros are confusing, let me spell it out. Ten million, four hundred and eighty thousand dollars.

The Morale

Photographers, beware. Every prick with a marker pen can now take your photos, draw a few lines on them, and they’re his own. It doesn’t mean this is going to happen, but this is a huge blow against preserving photographers’ intellectual property. A precedent has been set for even worse future examples. Thank you transformative art. I’m riding this wave and Mr. Erwitt can bite me.

Wars stories or: how you can’t shoot what you hate

I’ve been shooting Street Photography for two and a half years now. Until a few months ago it was a relatively easy path. It was easy simply because it was fun. The learning curve was steep; it still is. There was a lot to learn; there’s more even still. But none of that took anything from the pure enjoyment of grabbing the cam, walking the streets, and shooting whatever came along that grabbed my attention.

The results didn’t matter that much, or at least now they don’t seem to have been so. I wasn’t seriously worried about having a ‘voice’ or a style of my own that I could develop. This would come later, I thought. I also didn’t actively pursue a specific project because I thought it was too early. This could come later as well, I kept convincing myself.

Instead, during these past years, I was busy dabbling in pseudo-psychology, trying to adapt Carl Jung’s ‘Active Imagination’ technique to my own photographic process. Active imagination is a meditation technique where one could have the subconscious communicate with the conscious and let it vent out its concerns. So naturally, many of the photos I shot only mattered to me. And through the other ones I realized I was truly a class act symmetry freak. Not exactly the material that would have Magnum Agency knock on your door. But Magnum be damned, it was fun and releasing and elating.

Nevertheless, after two years of mindless fun, this photographic egocentrism started to wane. Enough with the pretty pictures. Pretty is a bad word. Time to move on and try to photograph this city’s people. Time to try to capture some true – or truthy – essence of what I see. Time to shoot with intent.

Shooting Beirut wouldn’t be too hard, I figured. After all, I was born and raised here. I’m in the know on how bad its multiple personality disorder is; it should be a breeze revealing its people’s ethos. How pretentious.

As soon as I started seeing people as living, breathing subjects, and not just as abstract shapes that could geometrically fill my frame, I balked. Seeing them differently was giving me anxiety all of a sudden. I didn’t want to shoot anymore. We photographers are supposed to empathize with our subjects. No sympathy required; just simple empathy. But even that I couldn’t do.

As much as I tried denying it, it started dawning on me that I didn’t like these people. Associating them with the city meant that years of suppressed images came floating back to the surface. I didn’t need to take pictures of them; I had reels and reels of mental images that were scrolling through my mind that would overshadow any scenes I was hoping to capture now.

May 1989. Teta Imm-Hanna is praying the rosary, standing facing a statue of the Virgin Mary set against the wall down in the bomb shelter. In the apartment building where we lived, all of us kids called her Teta even though she wasn’t our grandmother. I don’t remember her real name, Rose maybe, but everyone called her Imm-Hanna, or mother of Hanna (John), her only son who was shot in the head in the mid-70s by a drunken militia man. She was praying the rosary because it was May, the month of the Virgin, and every day she would set up a small shrine, light candles, burn incense, and go through the beads with children and other women in the building reciting the Hails Marys around her. Even if this year all 75 or so tenants are huddled up in a 5-room shelter with bombs raining on us, either by the Syrians or the Christian militia, she wouldn’t have it any differently.

Halfway through her ritual, a 240mm bomb (we knew them by sound) explodes at the door of the shelter. The blast was so powerful, I remember my hair rising up as if touched by static electricity. We were all covered with dust falling from the ceiling. Women were screaming, children were crying. Teta turns and yells at us: We’re not done yet! Keep praying! ‒ Click.

Winter 1990. Dad has to go to work. He’s a fireman and, in times of war, demand on putting out fires booms. My mother pleads with him not to go; the shelling was especially heavy that day. He wouldn’t have it; duty comes first. He drives down the small hill away from the building. No sooner does the car get out of sight than an explosion blasts right where the car was supposed to be. ‒ Click.

My mother breaks down, but the neighbors assure her that his car had already long passed by the time the bomb went off, so he is definitely safe. There was no way to be sure, though. The area got cut off, even for pedestrians. For days we stayed in the shelter, listening to the radio, hoping for good news. The stations had turned into country-wide Public Address systems for people looking for family members who had disappeared. The phone lines, if they ever worked, worked locally; no call would go through to a different area code. We placed our calls, repeatedly. But none were answered. They were ten days of hell.

On the eleventh day, the what, why, and how elude me. But I remember my father walking into the building lobby in his blackened uniform, my mother slowly walking towards him. They hug, she cries, our neighbors standing around them cry. ‒ Click.

As it turns out, the day he left, he had barely escaped the explosion and couldn’t turn back. He spent these eleven days putting body parts in garbage bags, many belonging to people he knew well. He had also tried to send calls over the radio to tell us he was safe. But he was calling the ‘Voice of Lebanon’ while we were calling the ‘Lebanese Radio,’ each catering to a different warring party. The irony of the stations’ names escaped us all.

Fall 1984. It is Catechism class and Miss Ghada, our 11eme (first grade) teacher, asks us to write down a prayer. Dear God, please kill all the Palestinians, the Israelis, and the Syrians, was my prayer. She looks me in the eyes and says: you never ever pray for other people to be killed. God will never listen and you’re the one he’s going to be upset with.  ‒ Click.

February 2005. I walk into the office early in the afternoon and make myself a coffee.  I sit at my computer, crack open the glass pane door by my side, and light a cigarette. A minute later, the power goes out. Normal for Beirut. The building’s generator will run in a second, I think. The floor starts rattling. I look outside and I see a mushroom cloud. A deafening explosion rips through my ears and I see myself flying off my chair across the office.  ‒ Click.

I’m on the floor and right across is my co-worker Ahmed. We get up and head towards the exit. My boss, Maroun, and his wife, May, join us from their desks, but we decide that the bathroom is safer for now. We stand in silence next to each other in the tiny stall. May starts crying; their two daughters, Magali and Mélanie, are in school.  ‒ Click.

We don’t know what hit us. A raid? Car bomb? Does it matter? A few minutes later we open the bathroom door to let some light into the darkened room. I see my bloody reflection in the mirror, and soon start picking out the glass shards lodged in my face. ‒ Click.

I feel something warm trickling down my neck. It better not be my head, I think. I’m afraid of needles and I don’t want to get sutured now. Priorities seem to get jumbled in such times. Oh, it’s just my ear that was slit. Thank God.  ‒ Click.

The Prime Minister had been assassinated when his car got blown up two blocks away from our office. Dozens dead. Hundreds wounded.

December 2013. All the pictures I need to take have already been taken. I had always thought that these events went away, buried deep down. Yet this damned photography business kept bringing them back up to the surface. Perhaps it wasn’t by chance that for these past few years I was only looking at people as abstract shapes and not as characters. It was pure escapism; the camera was my shield. A shield from having to look at these awful people who cause nothing but harm. We are these awful people. It doesn’t matter if we were victims, survivors, or oppressors. Being passive bystanders is akin to being enablers. We deserve better? Then why aren’t we doing something about it?

Now it’s becoming more and more obvious why Street and Documentary Photographers barely exist in countries with recent wars histories. Shooting the streets makes you face realities that you don’t always want to face. Long live escapism! Let’s shoot some landscapes. Tripods for everyone!

Are Street Photographs our time capsule?

When the Garry Winogrand Retrospective opened at the San Francisco MoMA last month, two articles, one from the SF Chronicle and another from the Conscientious blog, complained about the ethical breaches of photographing people without their consent.

Many Street photographers objected, indicating that there is a higher purpose for the genre, best illustrated through Fred Herzog’s quote. When asked how did making photographs in the streets of Vancouver become important, Herzog said:
“…I increasingly felt, ‘somebody has to do this.’ Because otherwise people in the future would only be able to go to People magazine or Look or Time or Life or any of those to see how people looked at this time.”

Two days ago, an article in the NY Times Lens Blog detailed the difficulties of being a Street Photographer in France, where ‘droit à l’image’, the right to one’s image, is prevalent. The minister of culture there, Aurélie Filippetti, had promised to look into the law governing privacy and was quoted saying:
“Without [photographers], our society doesn’t have a face… Because of this law, we run the risk of losing our memory…”

Both Herzog’s and Filippetti’s quotes underline the same idea. That, in the future, photos taken on the Street will be a representation of what our societies looked today. That this is our memory, our time capsule. When I first read Herzog’s quote I readily accepted his argument. But with more exposure to the current state of Street Photography, his argument became harder to agree with. I am in no position to contest that the photos of Cartier-Bresson or Koudelka represented the people of their times, but I strongly disagree that this is the case today.

To say that a collection of Street photos acts as a surrogate memory to days gone by implies that our photos are unbiased depictions of our societies. That in all truthfulness this is how people looked like at the time. Yet our pictures today are hardly unbiased. For reasons discussed below, the people in these pictures represent but a tiny sliver of society at large, a fraction no one should mistake for being the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

Watered down Arbus
A Street photographer steps off the train at Powell Station in downtown San Francisco. He walks over to Market Street and looks at the view in front of him in search of good scenes to shoot. He strikes up a conversation with his patron saint, St. Giacomelli:

– There are many homeless people by Burger King. What do you think?
– No, that’s exploitative and these don’t make good Street shots. Scrap it.
– Well here’s a bunch of street performers playing by the cable cars.
– No, these are easy shots. And as if anyone would give them a second look. You’ll be ridiculed!
– Fine, what about this couple? They’re walking their dog, sipping on their iced coffees.
– Yawn. There are no pockets of light, no funny background, and no secondary characters to fill the frame. Why are you even talking to me?
– OK, I get it! …Well over there is a woman wearing a tank top revealing a large snake tattoo. She has bandage on her eye, and she’s walking a tutu-fitted cat.
– Bingo! Run, streettog, run!

As ridiculously exaggerated as this account may seem, there is some reality to it. Character-seeking photographers eschew the mundane and the marginal, trying to find some middle ground by portraying everyday life in an interesting way. One of my favorite photographers, Christophe Agou, keeps giving me goosebumps any time I flip through his “Life Below” book. Yet I can’t be accused to disrespecting it by stating that in no way do his pictures represent the general appearance of New York subway riders. His characters are beautifully grotesque. But that’s what they are, characters, not ‘regular’ people.

The same could be said about Bruce Gilden’s work. And with the deluge of emerging Street Photographers emulating his technique, someone in the future is going to be sadly mistaken when looking at such shots and assuming that “this is how people looked at the time.”

Clean-up this Street
Admittedly, not all Street Photographers go after character-driven shots. Many of them go for wider scenes where the placement of the people, their actions, light, and the general composition give the shots their worth. In this case, it is true, there is no bias against regular or uninteresting-looking people. But I ask this. Think of the last time you were out on the streets. How many people were talking on their cellphones? How many were wearing backpacks? How many lanes were packed with cars?

Now go through flickr or Facebook or the galleries of the many Street collectives out there. There are barely any cellphones or backpacks, and there is nary a noticeable car. This is all justifiable since cellphones, for example, are eyesores in photos and we do our best to avoid them like the plague. But it goes back to the same point. These shots do not represent in any way what our society looks like. They make for a prettified version and an embellished reality but not the cold hard truth as it is.

Don’t go there
Assuming Ms. Filippetti was able to have the privacy law in France revoked, and consequently Street Photography was brought back to life in Paris, I wonder how many would head towards Saint Denis, a suburb mostly known for its extremely high crime rate, among other things. Thinking about other metropolitan areas in this world, I’d say there wouldn’t be too many cameras snapping away in Saint Denis.

Going back to that stranded Street photographer in San Francisco, he decides to walk northeast along Market  Street. It’s not unlikely that he’ll bump into a dozen or so of those who share his photographic interest. But if he decides to go southwest instead, towards the Tenderloin, he won’t see a single camera. In fact, he’ll be eyed suspiciously and it’s probably best if he got back to Powell.

In Lebanon, it would literally be a miracle if I headed with my camera to Beirut’s Southern Suburb and was able to come back with it. Or worse, come back on the same day without having been detained by some ‘Party Members.’ Such an issue is mostly non-existent in the other three suburbs.

The point here isn’t to accuse photographers of being discriminating against certain locations. These are not photojournalists, so they don’t have any political or social responsibility through their work. Their safety – and that of their expensive gear – is of primary concern. But again, this is an additional reminder that Street Photography does not have an evident Documentary purpose.

So? And so what?
If the subjects were sifted so to extract the right characters, the scenes were cleaned up so to remove eyesores, and the locations were narrowed down so as not to jeopardize safety, this is one very selective and minuscule memory we’re talking about. Not a decent memory at all for us to look back and see what people looked at the time.

This having been said, so darn what? Street Photography doesn’t need a grandiose raison d’être. To the contrary, it’s a form of artistic expression best explained through in-public’s manifesto’s last sentence:  “[Street] pictures remind us that, if we let it, over-familiarity can make us blind to what’s really going on in the world around us.”

Is that not enough?

Obligatory ‘hello world’ post

This is the third time I try to start a blog. My last attempt was a year and a half ago when I took to Street Photography seriously and figured I needed to share my intellectual and photographic “gems” with the world. Good thing I realized the error of my ways soon enough to scrap the whole thing.

So what changed now? Barely anything. But I’ll try to keep the BS at a minimum. And I’m sure that whoever reads the blog, if anyone, would tell me what I’m doing wrong.

Here’s hoping that I’ll commit this time.

Cheers,

Fadi