Tag Archives: photography

But What About Vivian Maier?

My post this week for Role/Reboot about not taking pictures of strangers is getting some traction. I’m always grateful for that kind of attention not only because it stokes my ego (stoked!) but because the more people who read something, the more likely it is that I get asked some tough, interesting questions. Shocking, I know, that I didn’t think of everything.

To refresh your memory, on the off chance that my words are not indelibly etched in your brain, I argued that the modern habit of snapping photos of strangers in public (at the beach, on the train, behaving badly, etc) and posting them online to mock is tantamount to bullying. I hinged my argument on permission (as always, consent is sexy), suggesting that if what you’re doing is complimentary (i.e. street style galleries, etc), you’d be comfortable asking permission of your subject. If you wouldn’t be comfortable asking, you’re probably being a creep. Note: Not a criminal, but a creep; this is an ethical argument, not a legal one.

So what’s the counter argument?

BUT WHAT ABOUT ART????? 

1954, New York, NYWhat about art? What about photography like that of Vivian Maier, the little known, recently discovered photographer who left her nannying job in Oak Park every weekend to come into the city and take photographs? Many of her photos are of average citizens waiting for stoplights, smoking on corners, or, like Instagrams of today, dozing on  buses. Some are head-on portraits that imply willing participation of her subjects, but many are clearly not.

December 2, 1954, New York, NY

Why is Vivian Maier’s “art” more valid than the ‘grammer on the train capturing the guy picking his nose and hashtagging it #digdeep? Can we call one nonconsensual stranger photo art and another harassment? Aren’t both equal invasions of privacy? Our modern age gives us tools to share our invasive “art”, whereas Vivian’s photography lay dormant in boxes for decades. But don’t we think that had Vivian been alive in 2014, she’d be Instagramming along with the rest of us?

In my post, I made a blanket rule “Don’t take pictures of strangers without their permission,” and many people pushed back that, if obeyed, my rule would eliminate the work of artists like Maier.

Yes, it might.

April 7, 1960. FloridaBefore we continue down this path, let’s weed out the dickwads who are straight-up bullying on purpose; we can all agree that their intent is to mock.

But many of us fancy ourselves capturers of beauty or longing or the human experience or whatever; we don’t think we’re bullies, we think we’re artists. The only way to justify our invasion of someone else’s space is to convince ourselves that the thing we’re producing is more valuable than that person’s comfort.

Let me give you an example: I just got back from Chile. In the many hundreds of photos I took, there are a few in which I am intentionally taking pictures of strangers without their permission. A handful are of performers, people on stages or performing in parades; though I’m still a little uncomfortable with that, let’s even discount those as potentially justifiable. But what about this one:

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This guy is just hanging out, watching the parade from his house. He didn’t wave at me, we didn’t acknowledge each other, he in no way, shape, or form gave an OK for me to take his photo, much less post it on FB*. Which I did. Without even thinking twice. Am I mocking? Teasing? Shaming? Not intentionally, no. But, as we discuss all the time, I don’t get to decideMy intention taking this photo is not what makes it ethically sound or not; his perception of me is. Does he feel like the gringa is abusing her privilege? Does he feel patronized or reduced or mocked? Does he feel like he’s being treated as a Chilean prop I’m using to commemorate my travels? I don’t know, I didn’t ask. Although I didn’t intend the photo to be any of those things, in this case I’m equivalent to the cat-caller/harasser/privacy-invader/slur-slinger who “didn’t mean it that way.”

So what now? Let’s say you believe that the world is better with Vivian Maier’s photography in it. I sure appreciate it. I’m pretty uncomfortable with how we got it, but let’s say there actually is small portion of art for which we are willing to make ethical compromises. We do it all the time, right R. Kelly fans?  Picasso fans? Hemingway fans? Roman Polanski fans? We separate our appreciation for art from how it was made or the crimes of the people who made it, especially when those crimes contribute to how it was made (you think when R. Kelly sings about panties and pussy he’s always talking about women over 18? Really?).

What percent of nonconsensual pictures of strangers are worth the ethical compromise? A very, very, very, almost microscopically small percentage. Which ones? Whose bar are we using? Well, obviously, I don’t get to decide, and neither do you. The question is, is the photo you’re about to take one of them? Is the photo I took of the Chilean man in that microscopically small slice of pictures worth the queasy feeling that someone’s privacy is being invaded? Hell no.

The question is, do you think you’re Vivian Maier? If not, then knock it off.

*I’ve since taken it down, ditto any other non-performance pictures of strangers. 

Related Post: My memoir will be called “Is My Optimism Really Just White Privilege?”

Related Post: When you’re feeling attacked, you’re probably just having your privilege challenged.

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Stranger Pics & The Pope

Contrary to the title of this post, this is not an essay about stranger pictures and the Pope, but rather two separate essays for Role/Reboot. This week, I wrote about the first rule of fight club: don’t take pictures of strangers without their permission. Very obvious corrollary: Don’t post pictures of strangers that you took without their permission.

On rare occasions, stranger pics are meant to celebrate and compliment, in which case, ask permission before snapping and sharing. The rest of the time, when we are taking photos of strangers with the intent to mock, we are actively contributing to a culture of bullying. We all do embarrassing things, accidentally wearing a shirt inside out (a stranger photo recently seen on Twitter), or trying to surreptitiously pick a wedgie (Instagram). If you would like your moments of private shame or your brief lapses in fashion judgment generously overlooked by the Internet, you have to give people the same courtesy. “Being in public” is not equivalent to “giving permission to be photographed and/or mocked/idolized/lusted after/bullied/captioned/edited”. Maybe legally it is, I have no idea, I’m not a lawyer, but ethically it is not.

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Last week, after the Pope commented that married couples without children will find bitterness and loneliness, I wrote about what he calls “the culture of well being”, and why wanting to be a parent is the best possible reason to become one, and not wanting to be one is a pretty damn good reason to not.

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Related Post: Stranger pic example, hot girls of Occupy Wallstreet.

Related Post: “Don’t take my picture,” “Come on! You’re at the beach!”

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S(Monday) Scraps 105

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1. TEXAS: This is a long and beautiful piece by Amy Gentry for The Rumpus about abortion, body politics, and who we’re really protecting.

2. BADASS: Senator Claire McCaskill replies to James Taranto’s horrifying essay about how the fight against sexual assault in the military is actually a “war on men” and male sexuality. Taranto: 0, McCaskill: ALL OF THE POINTS.

3. TRAVEL: Fascinating essay by travel writer Simon Winchester about a tiny island of 300 people, Tristan de Cunha, and how he got banned from visiting for violating local customs.

4. HISTORY: In the wake of the gutting of the Voting Rights Act, Slate has an example of the dizzyingly confusing literacy tests that were used in the 50s and 60s to prevent black people from voting.

5. PLANNED PARENTHOOD: In case you ever forget what Planned Parenthood provides, a lovely essay from the blog What Are You Doing Here, Are You Lost?

6. CITIES: Chicago Magazine has an awesome series of panoramic shots of New York, San Francisco, Chicago, pre- and during industrial development.

Related Post: Sunday 104 – Books in pie-chart form, awesome ASL translators, what is a bro?

Related Post: Sunday 103 – Awesome people reading, pin-up presidents, Rich Kids of Instagram

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Sunday Scraps 102

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1. JOURNALISM: This my be my favorite editorial I’ve read in quite some time. From Tim Krieder at the NYT, he writes about uncertainty of stating one’s opinions on the internet: “I felt like the explanatory caption beneath my name on-screen ought to be: PERSON IN WORLD.” This is basically exactly how I feel about everything.

2. STYLE: Ever wonder about Rihanna’s hairstylist? Who is this person? Where did he or she come from? NYMag has got you covered.

3. WAR: In this not at all scientific but very strangely powerful series, soldiers are photographed before, during, and after war.

4. TELEVISION: How to make a good drama that wins lots of awards. Is there a formula for that? Perchance there is and it’s only 13 steps!

5. GEOGRAPHY: Highly difficult, highly addictive, Geoguessr is game where google streetview displays a picture and you try to guess where in the world it was taken. Good luck with Australia vs. Texas.

6. DEPRESSION: Blogger Allie Brosh is back after a long hiatus. This webcomic explains where she’s been, and also does a pretty excellent job at describing depression to those that are not depressed. Play close attention to the fish analogy.

Related Post: Sunday 101 – Dear Daughter, Colbert’s “homophobe” song, Lennon and Maisey

Related Post: Sunday 102 – Why lady looks matter, SCOTUS, Huma + Anthony, football tragedy

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Rosie in the News: Alfred T. Palmer Edition

I can’t figure out why these photographs are suddenly showing up in my internet lap this week, but I’m not mad they’re here. Alfred T. Palmer was a photographer most famous for his WWII portraits, including these fabulous color prints of Rosies riveting:

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Related Post: The whole Rosie in the News archive

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Sunday Scraps 92

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1. CHICAGO: Love this story from Chicago Magazine about the millionaire founder of Land’s End’s financial and emotional commitment to personally reinvigorating the neighborhood he grew up in.

2. TINA: Blurgh! It’s over. At least the dearly departed 30 Rock  has left us with some serious vocabulary, as catalogued by Slate.

3. TINA #2: More on 30 Rock, because it’s just that important, Wesley Morris for Grantland specifically focuses on the show’s portrayal of race.

4. ART: Photographer Paul Schneggenberger captures couples sleeping over a 6 hour period and creates sort of wierd, mostly awesome portraits of sleep.

5. GUNS: Illinois has super harsh gun laws and yet Chicago has a serious gun problem. What gives? NYT has a map showing where Chicago guns come from.

6. MARRIAGE EQUALITY: My new favorite NBA player, Kenneth Faried, introduces his two moms (who seem quite reluctant to be on camera) to lend his voice to the fight for marriage equality.

Related Post: Sunday 91 – McDonald’s and books, sci-fi gender swapping, celeb high school photos

Related Post: Sunday 90 – Lindsay Lohan, Frida, Tina + Amy Forever

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Sunday Scraps 82

1. SPORTS: New York Times Magazine has a killer front page story on Kevin Durant, the Oklahoma City Thunder, how NBA can revitalize a city, and a city can dig in and support a team.

2. LADIES: Mother Jones has compiled a quick list of some kick-ass stats about women this election cycle. You’ve probably seen them, but it’s pretty powerful to line them up like this.

3. MARRIAGE EQUALITY: NFL-er of my dreams, Minnesota kicker Chris Kluwe, writes for Slate about what an amazing day it was on Tuesday. Progressive athletes = the coolest.

4. MADDOW: Have you seen Rachel Maddow’s summary of Tuesday’s results. Girlface kills it so hard.

5. BIGOTRY: Dominic Holden for The Stranger undertakes an interesting experiment, calling all of the biggest donors who contributed to the fight against marriage equality in Washington.

6. NYC: Great story in NYMag about the process of creating what will soon be the iconic image of post-Sandy NYC.

Related Post: Sunday 81: Callie Khouri, Anita Sarkeesian, sex surrogacy and Bill Maher.

Related Post: Sunday 80: Colbert, Leslie Gore, Halloween and a Breaking Bad parody.

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