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?

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