Are you close enough to see the truth?

Rant warning. The following contains mild anger, a fragment of barely concealed contempt, and a modicum of frustration. It’s not going to tell you anything new, but might serve as a reminder of some important things it’s easy to forget.

I’ve looked at a few images online recently which have made me feel very uncomfortable. Virtually always taken by men, these photos are of the homeless, the destitute and the ‘unusual’. One photographer talked about photographing a seriously distressed individual in the street, and the individual screamed for him to stop and not do it, and the photog boasted about his response – which was to step closer and take another shot. This individual’s attitude was “if it’s on the street, it’s fair game”.  Fair game! Bah.

I’ve had a long-standing interest in marginalised people, such as those who have ‘hidden’ disabilities which may manifest in ‘strange’ ways, ways not necessarily understood by the casual observer. So it angered me to listen to a fellow photographer describe a very distressed person as ‘fair game’. Language no different from that used by hunters, with no consideration being given to the way the photographer’s actions actually made the ‘subject’ feel, nor with any hint of concern for what might be the cause of the unusual behaviour that had attracted his attention in the first place. All that mattered was his getting the image.

Some years back my elderly dad suffered a serious stroke on a foreign holiday, which was misdiagnosed by the local doctor who prescribed rest and an aspirin, but my mum was very concerned and managed to get enough cash together to pay for an immediate flight back to London with him. With dad staggering and by now incoherent, and both of them still wearing ‘summer holiday’ clothes, she wrestled him through the airport and to a train. Arriving in freezing central London dad fell down between the train and platform and was jammed up to his chest. She described being unable to remove him, pleading with people to help, businessmen, smart folks in suits, elegant women in warm coats, all of whom sneered their thinly disguised contempt at her, and one of whom murmured “drunks”. Tear-stained and distraught she was finally aided by a couple of ‘thuggy young lads’ (as mum described them) who tenderly extricated dad and reassuringly assisted both to a taxi, and on to hospital. Things are often not what they seem on the surface. Smart suits don’t make you smart. Thugs are not always thuggish. Staggering people are not necessarily drunk. Life is complicated; and sometimes ‘the truth’ is an elusive quality.

So how do you get to the truth? By engaging with people. Sometimes it’s appropriate to simply take your image of the scene and depart. There’s no ambiguity, no hidden meaning. It just is what it is. But there are other times when things may not be what they seem. Situations where interaction reveals a better understanding, and some truth emerges, and if you’re lucky, the gift of a story is bestowed upon you.

A fact underlined beautifully by an experience described recently by duckrabbit.

And my own experience, one of many, whilst working on a project recording Scottish islands and the people who live there. I went into a small crafts shop to buy a souvenir. Sat by itself in the middle of nowhere, I’d passed the place numerous times but never stopped. It was a quiet day, hens wandered about, and inside the small ‘shed’ I encountered two women. So I politely asked if I might photograph them at work. Within ten minutes, I had been gently quizzed by the older woman and had teased out of me details of my project and wider work, my family history and much more. Then I was drinking tea, and as the afternoon wore on I found out mum was Sam and her daughter was Mickey. But then the story was revealed. Mickey is blind, and has epilepsy, and as she lives in a very rural area with few facilities she was offered some day care, much needed respite for both mum and daughter, in the day care facility for the elderly several miles away. But as Sam explained, her seizures “had frightened the elderly people” and Mickey was asked not to attend any more. So to provide a useful alternative and some valuable social interaction for Mickey, Sam built the shed, virtually by herself, to allow space for her daughter to work and run their small joint crafts enterprise.

I left with more than just the souvenirs I purchased, with an insight into epilepsy, prejudice and a mother’s devotion.


Mickey and mum Sam working. © John MacPherson


And more recently I’ve been astonished by the images and words that Jim Mortram is presenting as he explores the lives of his fellow citizens in his ongoing documentary ‘Market Town’. The images themselves are a shock to the system – direct, gritty and powerful, and some of the finest portraits I’ve seen anywhere. There’s a depth and honesty to them that’s compelling, and a look in the subject’s eyes that I think reflects the intentions of the photographer. And that look is trust. Trust born from the fact that Jim’s not just invading people’s lives, but also sharing in return a great deal of his own experience. And then there’s the words. Not Jim’s words, but his subjects. Simply related, no nonsense narrative. It’s a powerful combination.

I make no apologies for mentioning Jim’s work again on duckrabbit. It’s important work and needs shouting out about. For various reasons. But for me, one main and very personal reason.

Despite working professionally as a photographer, I also worked concurrently for over twenty years as a Social Worker, part-time in both jobs, by choice (for complex reasons I wont bore you with) with people who have physical and/or learning difficulties, social difficulties and problems such as epilepsy. The same people that Jim photographs. I’ve seen the effects careless comments can have on marginalised people, witnessed first hand the callous discrimination they often endure, and could relate to you several tales that would make you cringe, if not weep, at the actions of our fellow citizens. And I’ve barely restrained myself from punching people on a few occasions when they were unaware their comments were being overheard by someone who COULD respond; but instead I chose to articulate my contempt for them using their weapon of choice, language. It hurts far more and the ‘pain’ lasts far longer.

The voices of the ignorant are too often loud; those of their victims rarely heard.

You, or indeed I, may see a scar-headed individual in the street and if we’re really really perceptive realise this person has epilepsy (the head scarring and broken noses are the big clue that they fall down a lot). But if we’re totally ignorant we’ll see at best a toughie, or at worst a shambling basket case, distressed and somewhere out beyond the edge of our understanding. And consequently we may treat them ‘differently’ and in a less than caring way. But their ‘problems’ are not so much rooted in their illness, but in our ignorance.

Jim’s work seeks to narrow that gap in our understanding. By giving a voice to people who are often denied the opportunity to be heard. He wants you to see for example that people who have conditions such as epilepsy, are not defined by their illness, are not simply ‘epileptics’, but are people just like you and me. They have loves and laughs, and hopes and fears. And friends. They belong to communities and live their lives as richly as the interruptions of their illnesses will allow.

Simon. Not 'an epileptic', but a John Wayne fan © Jim Mortram

Simon. Not ‘an epileptic’, but a John Wayne fan © Jim Mortram


And by engaging, and I mean really engaging, as Jim is doing with the people who live in his community, sharing the experiences of their respective lives with each other, and relating their words, little gems of knowledge about Jim’s collaborators are revealed, such as Simon Childerhouse.

You might previously have described Simon as ‘an epileptic’, but thanks to Jim you can now see Simon as a John Wayne kind of guy, a movie buff with impeccable taste in leading men. True Grit? Yep pardner – but particularly the bit that says ‘true’.

There’s precious little truth in a lot of the online work I view, but there’s a great deal of it in Jim’s work. And we’re all the richer for that. This is the kind of work that underlines for me why photography is important, and carefully considered and concerned storytelling vital. Simon’s own words should be all we need to read in order to understand:

“…if I have a fit in bed I wet the bed and I’ve got pads on the bed to keep the sheets nice and dry. It’s embarrassing but that’s why I want to share it, to explain so people understand.”

There’s an old saying (from Capa) bandied about a lot in photography “if your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough”. I used to think that this referred to physical proximity, getting into someone’s face, right up there close. It took a long time and many hard knocks for me to realise I was completely wrong. Jim’s work demonstrates the real meaning of ‘close’. It’s really all about empathy, trust and understanding.

Has this post made a few of you feel just a little uncomfortable? Yes? Good. Because I am uncomfortable too. Jim’s work has made me realise I, as a photographer, can do much more for people like Simon. And I’m going to try. Will you?

“Fair game”?  Sometimes life’s not fair, and for individuals like Simon it’s never a game.


Author — John Macpherson

John MacPherson was born and lives in the Scottish Highlands. He trained as a welder in the Glasgow shipyards, before completing an apprenticeship as a carpenter, and then qualified as a Social Worker in Disability Services. Along the way he has cooked on canal barges, trained as an Alpine Ski Leader & worked as an Instructor for Skiers with disabilities, been a canoe instructor, and tutor of night classes in carpentry, stained glass design and manufacture, and archery. He has travelled extensively on various continents, undertaking solo trips by bicycle, or motorcycle. He has had narrow escapes from an ambush by terrorists, been hit by lightning, caught in an erupting volcano, trapped in a mobile home by a tornado, kidnapped by a dog's hairdresser, rammed by a basking shark and was once bitten by a wild otter. He has combined all this with professional photography, which he has practised for over 35 years. He teaches photography and acts as a photography guide & tutor in the UK and abroad. His biggest challenge is keeping his 30 year old Land Rover 110 on the road. He loves telling and hearing stories.

Discussion (42 Comments)

  1. martha hart says:

    Lovely essay, John. What wonderful stories you have in your work, in getting “close enough.” Photography (as opposed to taking pictures) does take time, effort, energy, risk – and you gain rewards beyond anything you’d imagined. Thank you for this piece – you’ve inspired me to continue moving forward with a long-stalled body of work, one of interviews/photographs that ultimately requires “exposing” myself as much as any photograph.

    • Thanks Martha. Glad this has struck a chord. Exposing yourself in these circumstances is not easy, rejection happens and hurts, but the rewards of persevering are worth the effort. Good luck with it!

  2. Nica says:

    I find this whole post more than a bit patronizing and hugely misled. And “I’ve had a long-standing interest in marginalised people” is one of the most privileged, straight-white-male things you could ever say.

    • duckrabbit says:

      HI Nica,

      thanks for your comment on John’s (excellent) post, however isn’t playing the

      ‘privileged, straight-white-male’ card just a bit of a easy, empty and patronizing cleche in itself (you missed off ‘colonialist’)?

      John’s post may or may not be ‘misled’ but there’s no way of exploring that thought because you didn’t provide any detail.

    • Thanks for your comment Nica.

      I’m not entirely sure who I’m patronizing. You? Or people who, unlike you, don’t have the right to reply?

      Want to elaborate a little so I might better understand?

      You might want to also consider that you patronize me by making the assumption that I am not also in some way marginalised.

      Privileged? Yes absolutely. Not something I have ever taken for granted. And you?

  3. David Lyman says:

    Very well said, and said well.
    A very nice piece of writing.
    When running The Workshops in Maine I was pleased when students made connections with the subjects of their one week assignment and a relationship emerged that transcended the images that resulted.
    It’s sad but too many pepper with cameras still shoot and run.
    The lesson is humanity not photography.

  4. J A Mortram says:

    RE marginalised people and documenting, I’d say, for me, the reason I’m close with all the people I photograph is I’m marginalised too. I just happen to make photographs. That does not separate or place me above or below in the same way that wearing glasses does not. Folk know I carry a camera, it’s an extension of me, sharing stories is an extension of who I am.

    I totally agree with John RE images ‘taken by men, these photos are of the homeless, the destitute and the ‘unusual’’ wholeheartedly, especially when the context is street, fast with no attention to the individual and especially when an aesthetic has placed upon the individual that holds no bearing on the spirit, situation, context and self of the person pictured. That overlay of the photographers own ego ABOVE and over the truth of the person pictured, well, it’s just about as far away from the truth as one could get.

  5. Really? says:

    First of all, this attitude of what is an okay way to photograph, is absolutely shallow and misguided, as someone may be doing a greater good with the image they recieve and the response they get by way of that proximately. Secondly, people on the street yell at all sorts of crap-preach jesus-scream about the end time etc…the public is the public-and like it or leave it-sometimes people use methods different than mine or yours.

    Most issues I get with people are the privileged.

    Photography is not only group therapy or some sort of tool for social justice-it is a tool defined by the user and their use of it. They may be interested in the anger when one gets close and invades people’s space(Bruce Gilden) and you may be more into touchy feely stuff(I like both).

    Bruce Davidson was assaulted and robbed during his ‘subway’ series so much that they eventually gave him a police escort-are you saying your methods are superior to his?

    You also have absolutely no right to put word sin Robert Capa’s mouth, though he might also have meant that, it is absolutely not what he was saying. He, by the way, was taking photographs somewhere so contested he was killed in the process. What do you think about that, or was he ‘fair game.’ ha!

    Save the sermon for church man…no one needs it…

    • Thanks for taking the time to reply.

      “you also have absolutely no right to put word sin Robert Capa’s mouth”.

      Which is why I didn’t. I simply listened to his words. And thought about what he might mean. And eventually realised I was wrong.

      You might want to re-read what I said.

      As for photographing on the street, I have no problem with it whatsoever. What I have a problem with is misrepresentation and exploitation.

    • duckrabbit says:

      Hi @really,

      sorry John’s opinion that photographers should treat other human beings with the same respect we would want to be treated so offends you.

      ‘No-one needs it’. Maybe not, but the fact this post has been tweeted over sixty times in just a few hours suggests it’s found an audience.

  6. J A Mortram says:

    Surely observing working practices and the writing about the ethics behind them especially in the photographic boom we are party to at the moment is very much a valid point of discussion?

    RE photography being group therapy or tool of social justice I see it very differently. I simply see it as holding a mirror to what’s in front of me. It’s a communication and not of me, about me or for me, it’s all about the OTHER side of the lens.

    For a photographer to make art from suffering, especially for example if shots are paid for (Basically a form of prostitution – make your own research as there are plenty of photographers out there paying to shoot people of ‘interest’ to them.) to have the ego to even consider doing that shares little of reality and as such does nothing to reflect the plight, success or struggles of anyone and serves only to garner attention to the photographer and their imposed aesthetic upon a fellow human being. It mostly serves to only further reinforce the notion of a selfish, self obsessed artist… and for me that’s the definition of someone with a privilege abusing their status.

    To render real life to nothing more than a characterized, fictional perversion of the truth, aren’t we better than that? or at least should we not aspire to be?

    Do we need to have (A version of) reality amplified to such an extreme extent as only then might we, for a flashing moment give a damn?… or can we not attempt to tell the truth, to have context, to see and listen and, this is very much of singular importance to me, to tell the story of the person we might be photographing with both feet in their reality and to document so as to truly represent their life and those lives of others around us instead of selling & sharing with the world an imposed and fraudulent version of reality.

    It makes a difference to me if someone is using people. Having access to a camera does not afford you that right and it’s a sad fact that so many people have so little that they are prepared to sell someone that chance and a fact that should not be made opportunity of. What we do with the interactions we have matter. People we photograph matter. What happens to their identity and how it’s presented to the world after the shutter has been pressed matters. The way we treat each other matters.

    In no way would I ever consider saying what any photographer should choose to do or have the choice or chance to do but I sure know what path I’d instinctively take and still be able to sleep at night.

  7. Nick Turpin says:

    I think the attitude you rail against in your “if it’s on the street, it’s fair game” initial example is an extreme that I think is so rare that it barely merits mentioning. In over 20 years of shooting on the street without asking permission I have never come across another Street Photographer with that attitude but I’ll take your word for it that you have. When one photographer did make a video of himself where he appeared to rudely grab shots in peoples faces last year he was utterly slated for it by the majority of the Street Photography community.

    Photography can do many things, there is a place for the intimate storytelling approach as there is for the candid observational approach and I think you choose the right approach to achieve what you want to with photography. There is a superiority in this piece that claims a kind of moral high ground for the former and with it the implication that those of us who make candid observations are guilty of ‘misrepresentation or exploitation’. Needles to say I think this is nonsense.

    As a younger photographer I spent weeks following families near Sellafield whose children had Leukaemia, I spent days with Cumbrian farmers who could not sell their sheep because of the levels of Chernobyl Caesium they had ingested, I stayed in the Rhonda Valley when the Aberfan Pit closed and shot retired miners with Pneumoconiosis of the lungs who had lost their grandchildren when the village school was buried.

    I now find much bigger, wider and more significant stories being told in the moments that many contemporary street photographers capture which is why I now choose to work in that way….but I would never condescend to belittle the work of those who focus on the minutiae of lives and communities, it’s just another way of looking at things.

    If you were so concerned with rendering ‘the truth’ you wouldn’t be photographing a colourful world in Black and White either would you.

    • Thanks for your reply Nick.

      I think you miss the point I sought to make.

      This is not a post about (the legitimacy or otherwise of) street photography. It’s a post about hidden disabilities. And the ways these difficulties manifest.

      And nowhere have I said that photographing on the street requires permission. I’ve been at this long enough to know that’s a complete nonsense. And my comments were not in any way directed at the Street Photography community, and it’s a shame that you interpret them that way.

      “There is a superiority in this piece that claims a kind of moral high ground for the former and with it the implication that those of us who make candid observations are guilty of ‘misrepresentation or exploitation’.”

      I claim no more moral high ground than you do with your examples of your formative photographic experience. My experience? Trying to explain to people with epilepsy, cerebral palsy, meningitis etc why members of the public were poking fun at them; trying to explain to a young man with cerebral palsy who is a Special Olympics athlete why a ski class were bellowing with laughter at him, led by their ski instructor, who had loudly used him as an example of “stupid posture” within his earshot; trying to explain to a man with brain damage caused by meningitis why he was being thrown out of a pub because his odd gait made him look drunk, when he was in fact an award winning photographer. I could go on. But hopefully you get the point. Sometimes things are not what they seem.

      Lest you be accused of misrepresentation allow me to quote the full comment I made in a reply above, rather than the piece of it you quote out of context:

      “As for photographing on the street, I have no problem with it whatsoever. What I have a problem with is misrepresentation and exploitation.”

      That seems pretty clear to me.

      Yes the world is in colour. But unfortunately people’s attitudes are often black and white.

    • And just as a brief addendum – I’ve taught photography for several years, and I always include street photography as a genre, with a long history, and detail the various well respected and published practitioners of the art, and place this within a sound historical context. I’m actually singing from the same hymn sheet as you.

  8. J A Mortram says:

    With respect Nick ‘candid observational’ is very different to moments purchased for money and then heavily photo shopped with a imposed and fictional aesthetic.

    Absolutely I agree with ‘there is a place for the intimate storytelling approach as there is for the candid observational approach’ that goes without saying.

    In no way (was I) belittling street work as a whole, in any way. I have the very, very highest regard for Street photography. I applaud 99.9% of it but that .1% that I have issues with is for me inexcusable and indefensible. How is exploitation ever defensible?.

    (RE B&W until 3 days ago I’d only ever had a broken monitor that I could not see colour very well on, that’s why my use of B&W.)

  9. Brad Evans says:

    Thanks John for your very thoughtful essay. My feelings about the subject dovetail with yours.

    Occasionally I see similar kinds of “fair game” approaches to photographing people who are in helpless situations, living on the street or in shelters in San Francisco. They are always taken with little empathy or concern, where subjects are described as “characters,” rather than simply as people. In situations like that I see little real connection, rather they’re photographed as a kind of photographic eye candy. And never with any dignity; usually shot down from above. A series of photos photos ends up looking like a trip to the zoo.

    It’s inspiring to see bodies of work like Jim Mortrams. He’s clearly a photographer who cares a great deal about his subjects. His beautiful and thoughtful photos inform rather than ridicule. More importantly, they amplify, rather than tear down the dignity all subjects have within, no matter their situation.

    Also, your reference and interpretation to Capa’s quote is spot-on, and something I never thought about before – thanks!

  10. @PatDownsPhotos says:

    Excellent post. I think that multimedia (audio + stills) can be an excellent method once one is comfortable with getting “close” rather than just close. A way to add to the story, in the subject’s own voice, that goes beyond the stills and captions. IMO

  11. Andy Greaves says:

    This is a thought provoking essay and a debate which needs to happen frequently if only to remind us of our responsibilities as photographers. Nonetheless I find myself sitting on the fence because like a good Black and White image things are never just erm black and white. While I have empathy for the essay I find myself in agreement with Nick Turpin.
    Let’s not confuse people with cameras with concerned committed photographers whether they be street photographers or another genre of the subject.
    The problem is that the public at large keep being told “we’re all photographers now” and as such here’s one of the problems. The media and yes the photography within it has informed the public that anything is ‘fair game’. It’s deemed as acceptable for members of the public to photograph incidents like that described by the author just as it’s deemed acceptable for the public to view images of Iranian’s hanging by their necks from cranes over their cornflakes in a morning. At the same time the public has been confused and distorted by the terrorist threat and photography’s role within it. Street photography has a long and rich tradition and it would be wrong to tarnish all serious and committed street photographers with that same uncaring not engaged brush.

    Photography is very often about ‘access’ and this is the key to Jim Mortram’s superb work of whom I’m a big fan. Jim has negotiated his way in to those situations that he’s captured so well. His work deserves the very best exposure that can be offered but alas Contemporary Photography is in a very strange place at the moment, It’s not dead but it smells bad !

  12. Andy Greaves says:

    adding further – as i stated at the beginning this debate is not so black and white, so clear cut. At the heart of this essay and subsequent discussion is the issue of visual literacy which most serious committed photographers are and become aware of as they study the subject. Sadly however the rest of the population don’t have a clue about and as it’s not taught in schools that situation is not going to change anytime soon. In fact the powers that be would have it so !!

  13. Thanks Andy for adding your thoughts to this.

    I wholly agree with your fundamental points. However:

    “Street photography has a long and rich tradition and it would be wrong to tarnish all serious and committed street photographers with that same uncaring not engaged brush.”

    If that’s the impression I gave it’s the wrong one. And I’m not entirely sure how you arrive at that conclusion from what I’ve written. I’ve said:

    “Sometimes it’s appropriate to simply take your image of the scene and depart. There’s no ambiguity, no hidden meaning. It just is what it is.”

    That seemed clear enough to me when I wrote it.

    I’m only too aware of the rich tradition of street photography and you do me a disservice if you think I’m either ignorant of it or not sympathetic to it. It’s a genre of photography I admire, have several books about, have been to exhibitions of, and have discussed at length with my peers. I have no illusions about it, and consider much of the work I see very insightful.

    But here’s my bottom line: if you or Nick were to witness my old befuddled dad jammed between a train and platform, and my distressed and tearful mother trying to help him, and you decided to take their picture, I’d have no problems with that at all.

    I’d even fight the rail staff to support your right to do it given their sensitivity to photography in railway stations.

    It would be nice to think you’d put the camera aside and help eventually, but even if you didn’t do that, I’d not judge you for walking on. There is no requirement that you do assist, other than any you impose upon yourself. Little dramatic moments like that happen, all the time, and sometimes recording them can provide the kernel of a story that has great value, in lots of ways, for lots of people, including the photographer, and quite often for the subjects.

    But if you HAD walked on and then published those photos, thats cool too – thats our right as photographers in this country. Again, one I’ve fought for, and would fight on your behalf to enable you to do.

    But what I’d be mightily aggrieved by would be if you captioned those images as, or allowed them to be illustrations of, a piece on alcoholism or drugs abuse. Thats what I’m talking about here. No moral high grounds, no preaching sermons, just my opinion on a set of standards regarding ‘truth’ that I think is hugely important in an age when – as you rightly point out – we are all photographers, and when photoshopping, image alteration and misrepresentation have become the norm for many people.

    The debate here is important, but it’s not one I’m looking for a winner in, because there is no win to be had. The Simon’s of this world will still wrestle daily with conditions that are problems partly because of the huge physical impact they have on them, but also because of the social impact that ignorance can wreak on their already fragile lives.

    As an aside re “Iranian’s hanging by their necks from cranes over their cornflakes” – in my possession, amongst a great collection of old images some taken by my dad, others by my grandfather and his brother, is a small b&w well over 100 years old of two figures hanging from a tree, and the caption on the back describes this as “the last public hanging in Samoa”. Street photography from two centuries ago.

    Plus ca change.

    Thanks very much for adding some valuable comments to the post.

  14. Nick Turpin says:

    John I think the example you give of your poor father trapped at the station is a good one because it gets to the crux of this debate, the difference between being an observer and interacting with the subject as a photographer. For me it is one of the most difficult decisions and one that often arrives for photographers covering conflict or famine. Do you do more good helping one individual at the time or do you help many more people by providing the world with an objective record of what happened.

    Life is Chaplainesque, it contains both humour and tragedy and I feel obliged to record both as they unfold in front of me but I am careful not to make interpretations, my images are titled ‘Street Scene’ followed by the location and date for this reason.

    I believe there is more value in presenting a mirror to society so we can see what we’ve made and how we are living in the technologically, economically, politically ‘advanced’ west. An image of a helpless trapped man at a busy station with no one going to aid him is a symbol of the loss of community and sense of a caring society that our ‘advancement’ has cost us, that single picture could encapsulate the state of modern western societies, which is for me the power of the best street photographs.
    However I would look callous standing their making images with my Leica while he suffered.

    This exact scenario is at the heart of the single photograph that made me understand the power of observed photography, it’s an image by Joel Meyerowitz that I saw as a student of a young smartly dressed man lying on the pavement in grave need of assistance and yet 20 people in the shot are not going to help him. I’m glad that Joel Meyerowitz made that picture instead of putting his camera down to help because it has changed the course of my life.

    • duckrabbit says:

      Hi Nick,

      good comments. Thanks.

      I think its interesting that you say you ‘are careful not to make interpretations’, but surely a photo is in its very essence an interpretation, further enhanced by the selective editing of the photos that come out of your camera? When we take that into consideration isn’t the idea that photography is somehow a mirror on society a dangerous one, unless of course we accept it to be a distorted mirror? And this is where I would differ from John because I don’t believe in the idea of photography as truth.

      The photo that you speak of is a good example of another myth in the industry. The idea that photographers are often presented with the moral dilemma to help save someone (often life) or take a photo that may or may not lead to a greater good.

      How often does that really happen?

      Meyerowitz can take the photo and them he can go and help. It’s not an either, or.

      But the argument that the end justifies the means is very dangerous. Its why America has more people in prison per capita than anywhere else in the world. If we lock people up they can’t commit crime. The end justifies the means, but that’s presupposing there isn’t another, better way of solving the problem (like taking the photo and helping the man).

      Your argument also centers on causality (the photo changed your life). And again that’s where I’m afraid for me it fails. Say the man who has fallen down dies because no-one helped and the photographer just decided to take photos. The result is that you got inspired. Well what if that man was a great teacher who was inspiring other young people? One of whom might go on and find a cure for cancer. If he had been saved your life might not have been changed, but its very likely someone else’s will have been.

      • Nick Turpin says:

        I assumed we could take as read the fact that photographers with cameras make selections and can never be completely objective, that’s first year degree stuff along with questioning the relationship between the image and reality. Neither observers or people using Johns approach are free from imposing those subjective selections….that is just a product of having an intentional agent behind the lens.

        Meyerowitz went to Paris not on holiday but to make pictures on the street, he would not have been witness to the Fallen Man scene otherwise… he wasn’t just another passing citizen and for me that’s an important distinction. When I work the streets of London I don’t intervene in situations because were I not a photographer I would have been at home…at that time I’m not a paramedic or a social worker I am a witness to human public life.

        Everything centres around causality, every event in our Universe since the prime mover has been part of a chain of cause and effect, this blog debate was likely inherent in the quantum singularity that exploded and expanded into the energy and matter we’re surrounded by. You could argue that nobody ‘decides’ anything, about photographing a scene or anything else. The notion of human free will seems hugely unlikely given what we no about evolutionary psychology and neuroscience.

        That’s a much bigger discussion…LOL.

  15. Good morning Nick. Thanks for coming back to add to the discussion.

    I agree entirely with the content of your post. Unequivocally.

    I’m familiar with the image you link to, I have Meyerowitz on my shelf.

    As I said last night:

    “It would be nice to think you’d put the camera aside and help eventually, but even if you didn’t do that, I’d not judge you for walking on. There is no requirement that you do assist, other than any you impose upon yourself. Little dramatic moments like that happen, all the time, and sometimes recording them can provide the kernel of a story that has great value, in lots of ways, for lots of people, including the photographer, and quite often for the subjects.”

    Life is complex. And when it comes to recording it, there’s no black and white right/wrong way to do it – only shades of grey and that, for me, is the reason why it has the power to touch people, ask questions, and leave doubts. I have a large collection of images I’ve taken of street scenes unfolding, in various places, with little vignettes of human interaction, some funny, some sad, many ambiguous.

    Edit: But my work with marginalised individuals has made me realise also that sometimes there’s a wholly different dynamic going on, and one that is worth being aware of and perhaps considering. Do I think the vast majority of street photographers are callous and heartless? No. Quite the contrary. My post is not an attack on street photography, or its practitioners, it’s a defence of the right of people with hidden disabilities to have the reality of their situation accurately portrayed (at best) and (at worst) just given a little consideration. It’s as simple as that.

    Thanks again, for helping to tease out the nuances of intent and purpose that were amongst the reasons why I posted this in the first place.

    • Jared Iorio says:

      Wait, what? All this moral high ground and you wouldn’t judge someone for walking on and not helping an injured guy in the street? Stange the circles upon circles in these comments…

      • Thanks for your comments Jared.

        Moral high ground? Because I suggest that what you think you might be seeing is not what the reality of the situation is? And also that sometimes (note ‘sometimes’) getting closer will reveal that there’s more to ‘it’ than you think?

        In a situation as I described with my father the point (perhaps you missed it) was that my mother persistently asked people directly for help and was turned down. That’s indefensible. Do I adopt the moral high ground there – yes.

        But thats totally different to the response I gave above and with which you take issue, which is that a photographer comes upon such a scene, and is in my opinion under no requirement to intervene, other than any imposed by themselves. Unless they are asked. Then, if they refuse to offer assistance I’ll certainly judge them – and probably harshly. (and it doesn’t have to be a photographer, it could be anyone)

        Perhaps you would act differently?

  16. Juliette says:

    This is my first visit here and I find this post fascinating. I think this line sums it up: “It’s really all about empathy, trust and understanding”… It’s a shame that there are so many people (not just photographers) who push the envelope for the sake of themselves; to get that great shot they want. I’ve taken a few shots of homeless after engaging with them in conversation – after asking if it’s ok for me to make a picture of them. They are often as you said, not who I thought they were. I think the point is treating others with the same respect. Hear, hear on that!

    On another note, it has been said (and I have put into practice) that once you engage with someone a conversation, their portrait no longer belongs to the street photography genre, but now has become … well, a portrait. Any street photographers out there who want to comment?

    • Brad Evans says:

      >>> >>> On another note, it has been said (and I have put into practice) that once you engage with someone a conversation, their portrait no longer belongs to the street photography genre, but now has become … well, a portrait. Any street photographers out there who want to comment?

      Juliette, I’ll take a whack at that…

      There are a lot of “definitions” about street photography floating around, so it the end it becomes kind of a personal view. Mine is that street photography is photographed candidly. And candidly for me means “not set up,” rather than “not seen.”

      In addition to candid street photography, I also like engaging strangers on the street for portraits. I call that street portraiture. Enjoying both street photography and street portraiture, on any given day I’ll mix it up and do both. In fact most of the photo projects I have done are a mixture of both.

      The skills needed are very different for both types of photography. I can say that engaging a lot of people for street portraits has greatly improved my street photography. It has also become rewarding in many other ways.

  17. Stan B. says:

    John- Thank you for the continued conversation you initiate, and in particular (this time around)- the added insight into the time worn Capa axiom. How predictable can it possibly be that the “Western” interpretation has fixated solely on “physical” distance? While many photographers have thought, felt and practiced your more “holistic” interpretation, it’s nothing short of enlightening to have it mentioned within the same sentence. It’s as if the other shoe just dropped.

  18. Thanks for stopping by Juliette and offering your thoughts. Much appreciated. Maybe Nick or Andy will come back and offer their perspective on your query.

  19. Andy Greaves says:

    John – I can’t speak for other people I can only speak for myself ! I can assure you that I would have helped your distressed mother and father ( even if they’d been drunk!) and it would probably have never occurred to me to take a photo before doing so. Why ? because that’s the kind of person I am, The ‘Good Samaritan’ made a strong impression on me as a kid ! I once walked a drunk to his home ( well he said it was his home ! ) about 3 miles out of my way one Christmas eve to ensure he was safe when i found him laid out on the pavement.

    I digress ! Anyway I’m sufficiently visually literate to never make assumptions enough to title my work wrongly and will only do so if really necessary and there is likely to be a misunderstanding. In fact I don’t particularly like giving my work captions, I prefer the ambiguity that photography offers, all images are constructs.
    You rightly point out that there’s nothing new in my Iranian hanging analogy but I still think the point was worth noting.

    Personally I would love to do more of the ‘engaged’ work but ‘access’ is the key ! and as I said Contemporary Photography is in a weird place right now. That’s another debate. We can only congratulate Jim for having the patience and tenacity for gaining access and trust to achieve this work. I wish I had it.

    • Hi Andy. Thanks for your continued interest in the discussion. Appreciate it.

      So it was YOU who got me bloody lost that Christmas! I thought I’d never find out who did it! 🙂

      I understand the attitude you talk about regarding street work and captions, and I agree it’s a very valid way to present work. Ambiguity can be a powerful way to focus people’s attention on their own prejudices and interpretations.

      I think most serious street photographers would offer assistance to people in trouble. You don’t spend countless hours in all weather wandering the streets without having a fair amount of insight into the complexity of life, and fundamental to even considering doing such work in the first place is an interest in, and concern for, people. Its obvious in your work, and in Nicks. If asked I’m quite sure both of you would step forward.

      And that probably sums up the core of what I’ve written about: ‘engagement’. The “contempt” I mention at the start of my post is not so much about the fact that a whole bunch of strangers walked past without offering my father any help, it’s that my mother solicited assistance, actually engaged people, and was rejected.

      And it’s ‘engagement’ that shines through Jim’s work. The effort required to gain the intimate access that he is gaining is considerable, and I applaud him for taking the time, and making the effort to give us the glimpses he does into the lives of folks like Simon.

      Can I ask you to offer an response to Juliette (above) re ‘street photography’ and ‘portraits”, I think your (or Nick’s) perspective would be very useful here.

      And Juliette – I can heartily recommend that if you’ve not already done so, that you visit Brad (Evans) blog (he posted earlier, above) to see some of the very accomplished work he regularly posts, and which I’ve enjoyed browsing for some time.

      Finally, to firmly nail my colours to the mast, allow me the indulgence of quoting a comment I posted on a forum a year ago in response to the query “i would like to know what some of you think the true value of street photography is, if any.”

      John MacPherson , Jan 22, 2011; 02:52 p.m.

      “It may not have monetary value, but…… it has social and cultural value and can in the fullness of time have historical value too. It also shows us the human situation and freezes fleeting moments of humanity so we may closer view, understand or puzzle over what has passed us by.

      At its best, street photography is a wonderful celebration of the ordinary.”

      Hopefully that more eloquently sums up for you my attitude to proper ‘street photography’.

  20. David Drake says:

    Why do people feel the need to defend their photography so much? We do it because we like to do it. Simple as that. Lets not project loftiness on to our work as if our shit doesn’t stink. Lets not pretend that ego isn’t involved at all. The fact that we pick up cameras to begin with means we value our eye as something comparatively superior to everybody else’s. If our work is so selfless, why not release it anonymously? It is about us. Creating art is a selfish act. Full stop. Its a form of expression that only we can express, because it’s all about perspective. If something we produce benefits awareness for something/somebody else, at most our work has become “mutually beneficial”. Quit putting on airs.

    Moving on to exploitation. Its all in the eye of the beholder. Perhaps the photographer finds a way to convince him/herself that their motives are pure, and that their work is solid documentary photography (whatever that means). That isn’t up to them. That is up to their audience. One man’s heartfelt image set is another man’s parade-of-grotesques. At its core, a story/documentary is a way to satisfy the human desire to observe other humans. Thats why we gobble up drama, literature, and news. We want to know what other people are doing. Isn’t this in itself exploitative? We parade around other people’s lives to quench our own interests.

    • duckrabbit says:

      Hi David,

      I totally agree.

      I’ve spent a lot of time with people working in the humanitarian community. The best ones always say the same thing, ‘I do it for selfish reasons, its just that what makes me happy also helps other people’. Exactly what it seems to me you are saying.

    • Thank you David. I appreciate your forthright opinion. And Ben also.

      I’ll just add a note about my own feelings of uneasiness regarding the wider thrust of this debate – which is pretty much universally the case with such discussions, and I’ve participated in several online in recent years – that it’s a bunch of literate, computer-savvy, well-educated folks (like me, and you) who can afford the indulgence (relatively speaking) of photography and have the free time to muse over the ‘plight’ of those less fortunate than us. And that could of course include people who have a hidden disability.

      But their voice is missing in all this so far and the perspective they could bring to to the discussion would be valuable. I can only ‘speak’ for the people I’ve worked with whose circumstances I was intimately involved with, but that gives me no right to speak on behalf of others who may be perfectly able to articulate their sentiments for themselves.

      Maybe someone who has already posted does have epilepsy, and is getting on with life without fuss. A hidden disability very well hidden. But in their absence we are left with the voice of Simon as seen through the prism of Jim’s experience, and lens, and with all the distortions that of necessity will bring. But for me it still presents a pretty clear and truthful picture of the experience of coping with a fairly debilitating condition, but placing that struggle squarely within the context of a wider, richly lived and productive life.

      And that has to be a clear enough voice to listen to.

  21. Stan B. says:

    It’s always about the ego- no denying. But… so often, it just comes down to the-way-in-which-you-do-it.

  22. Andy Greaves says:

    John – As you requested I’ll respond to Juliette’s comments, which of course are equally valid.
    The problem I have personally Is that I don’t label myself as ‘street photographer’. It’s just one of the areas that I explore with my cameras. My Engage the Street blog is just one of four blogs I have going at the moment. I struggle with the whole pigeon hole thing in photography. Maybe that’s where i’ve been going wrong 😉 I would happily do portraits in the street and hopefully engage with the subject, indeed I have done just as I would undertake the more ‘engaged’ work which we rightly praise Jim for. I’m doing some right now !
    But let me put my street photography hat on for a moment and give you my personal feelings on my own approach. When i do that kind of work I do not seek out to create images which are derisory, contemptuous or ridicule the individuals within those images. I feel i am trying to create work which says something about how I personally feel about the country I’m living in, right here right now. That work will inevitably reflect elements of my own personality, upbringing, prejudices and yes political opinions. That’s something I can’t help although I can acknowledge it’s presence in my work. In this respect the people in my images are metaphors for how I feel about society as a whole and in that respect I’m not particularly concerned with their individual stories. Right now when i go out in the streets I see what I call lots of ‘walking wounded’ and some of my work probably reflects that but that’s how I see this country at the moment rightly or wrongly ! This is what the work of the best street practitioners does in my view, Winogrand, Frank, Weegee etc. Now when i undertake ‘engaged’ photography I do concern myself with individuals and therefore i feel the need to add text and writing to my images to tell the whole story. This is what Jim has done and rightly so although we must acknowldge that Jim’s work can also be seen as a reflection of society as a whole. The two are not mutually exclusive. We must acknowledge as Barthes says that there are three people involved in an image, the subject, the photographer and the viewer each with their own interpretation of the process.
    I could go on i guess and I would love to be involved in a round table discussion preferably with a pint but alas ! This has certainly been a worthwhile and interesting posting and for that I thank you. Certainly made me think over the past few days !

  23. Thanks again for your considered opinion Andy.

    “Right now when i go out in the streets I see what I call lots of ‘walking wounded’ and some of my work probably reflects that but that’s how I see this country at the moment rightly or wrongly !”

    I think that statement in itself nails it for me. Actually seeing the ‘walking wounded’ and reflecting on their place in society, and the social, political, economic factors that bear upon them, and by extension all of us, is the reason why the work you do as a Street Photographer (capital letters) is important, and valid. You think about what you do, and the fact you’re here engaging in this discussion simply underlines that. (and I don’t intend that to sound patronising).

    The pigeon-holing thing is one I’ve wrestled with too. Some people know me as a guy who takes landscapes, others contact me to take pictures of people, some for nature subjects, and advertising clients in the whisky industry engage me because I can make ordinary distillery sites look a wee bit romantic, and in amongst all that I do technical stuff for LandRover fans, and equally specialised stuff for canoe and kayak clients. But for relaxation I’m happy wandering and carrying a small camera and seeing what chance encounters come my way, and what stories might reveal themselves as a consequence.

    But as I’ve realised over the years, as I am certain you will have too, although these different genres of photography may differ (and attract a disparate audience) the key skills from each all combine to inform what it is you do whichever hat you’re wearing.

    I greatly appreciate that you’ve taken the time to continue the discussion, and it’s also been really really heartening to see the number of retweets and comments this discussion has elicited, which just goes to show that there is an appetite for what I think is a difficult and thorny subject, but one that’s well worth dragging out and giving a good whacking from time to time.

    Yep – be good to share a pint – just give me fair warning of which hat I need to be wearing!

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