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Stealth Photography And Other Urban Problems

“Do you think I can’t see you, crouched over there, with your giant camera and massive lens? Do you think I don’t know that you’ve been taking pictures of my daughter and I while we sit and talk about her school day? I came here for a few moments of quiet conversation and a cup of coffee. I never volunteered to be your subject, never agreed to pose for your photos. Sure, you probably spent a lot of time picking out your gear and your bags. Maybe to your photography buddies you look cool and stealthy. But, to me, you are just an obvious thief, here to steal what is most precious to those of us that live in big cities; the quiet moments we carefully carve out for ourselves in the midst of the human zoo.”

I wrote those words some time ago, before I seriously got into photography. I’ve lived in touristy and photogenic cities all my life and been photographed without my consent more times than I care to remember. In a way, it’s the price we pay for living somewhere that is visually amazing (and maybe for looking a little odd, or different).

Photographing in a city presents a lot of challenges and paradoxes. I don’t believe that everyone in the city is fodder for our cameras. We cope with city life because we find moments of privacy in the hustle and move through the streets with a degree of shared anonymity.

But, city street-scapes are fascinating places and the theatre of everyday life is rich with stories and moments that are photo-worthy. Part of what attracts me to city life is the same thing that attracts photographers to document the city with their images.

But, what are we doing when we point our cameras at people? What is it that makes the stealthy photographer with a big lens so obnoxious to most city dwellers?

Part of what bugs me about stealthy photography is the inclination to treat subjects, which means people, as prey. The stealthy photographer, by trying to hide themselves, is opting out of the social contract that most urban dwellers live by. It’s opportunisitc photography and, at least from my perspective, it often produces photos that, well, don’t appeal to me.

Take this video, which kind of represents everything I don’t like about the culture of photography. Not only is it drivel-laden gear worship of the most misguided kind. It’s also sniper-photography that seems content to produce pointlessly anonymous images of city-dweller’s backsides.

Have I taken photos without asking people? Sure. Typically I’ve done it with a wide angle lens in a very visible location. And, if you’ve ever met me you know I don’t really blend into the background that well. I’m not afraid to show people any photo I’ve taken where they are visible and if they really don’t want to be photographed, they wont be. I don’t believe the world needs more photos of people staring discontentedly down a lens that was just poked in their face.

Moreover, I believe there’s a valuable distinction between a photo of someone and a photo with someone in it. If the only reason for the photo is the presence of one particular person, then it’s a photo of them. But, if they are just a player in a larger drama, maybe not recognisable, or taking up only a small part of the frame, then it’s something else entirely. The “idea” of the photo is not the person in the image. The photo below is (hopefully) an example of the later.

Life Imitating Art In Oaxaca

I’ve always been attracted to the idea of the Flaneur. I wrote a lot about this form of participant observation back in my academic days. The Flaneur walks through the city as an observer, but also participates fully in the life of the city. The Flanuer as photographer is not going to hide – in fact, to be true to the spirit of the flaneur, you should dress up and dress well, maybe even consciously draw attention to yourself.

In the end it’s a value judgment. We are not all going to agree on what makes a decent photo. That said, my inclination is still to suggest that there’s a connection, between how we create art and the kind of world we want to live in. Aesthetics, our sense of taste, is an extension of ethics, our sense of what’s right and wrong.

I’m not normally this strident or ideological about photography (or art, for that matter). But, as a lifelong city dweller I believe that the photographic community (if there is such a thing) needs to take a step back and consider what we are doing when we point our cameras at people. Are we hunters, or fellow humans?

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9 Comments

  • Toni - 18th November 2011

    The ethics of photographing people are a little tricky, aren’t they? I have always felt happy taking pictures of strangers where either I can ensure they are oblivious to my camera, or they are willingly participating in the process. The in-between ground leaves me very unhappy *personally*, and I find it difficult to photograph those who are aware but with whom I have no agreement.

    One of the participants on our India trip was a semi-professional photojournalist, and was apparently comfy pointing a very large camera and lens at anything that moved. To begin with I actually felt a little embarrassed on their behalf, although after a while it came to seem normal, even though I couldn’t participate myself. In fairness, they were very happy for pictures to be accompanied with largesse, if required, so on one level they were prepared to keep the whole thing professional. Generally people appear to have responded positively, having seen some of their images.

    We also had a situation in a large mosque in Delhi, where Indian visitors gathered in numbers around our group to photograph us. At the time it seemed perfectly reasonable – a fair exhange if you like – for us photographing so many of them. But it was a curious reversal of the usual pattern, and makes me wonder if a transfer of western culture into the lives of ‘ordinary’ people has taken plane in India.

    Reply
    • Fernando Gros - 29th November 2011

      Toni – they are. And, there is a pretty big grey area between “anonymous on the street” and “clearly the subject of the photo.”

      As for western culture in India – well there is a lot of ‘transfer” as you put it. But, the amazing thing about India is the “masala” effect. Perhaps McDonalds and Pizza Hut are the best examples. The Western food arrives, but pretty soon you have the McAllo burger and the Veg/Paneer pizza and the so-called western fast food tastes Indian.

      Reply
  • Javier I. Sampedro - 18th November 2011

    It´s not an easy task to accomplish and especially when I have in mind how people can react when they see my lens. For me, as you mentioned, like to see people as a part of the whole picture, not just focus on them as the main subject. I do admit that I want to improve in portrait photography but maybe it should be better to practice with people closer to me rather than random people on the street.

    Quite interesting topic and thinkings. Lots of possibilities but also other difficulties and challenges to get over them.

    Reply
    • Fernando Gros - 29th November 2011

      Javier – with people on the street it is all about conversation and human interaction. If you say hello to someone, get into a conversation with them, then they say yes to a photo, something wonderful can happen. Also, I believe, despite what some people say, that if one is patient and kind, you can do this in Hong Kong as well.

      Reply
  • Ekta Saran - 24th November 2011

    I think this came up on and off during the trip.

    Its interesting how people can disconnect themselves so completely from a subject, rather, a person. As if the whole purpose of them being there is for us to shoot.

    For someone who is not a big fan of her photos being taken, I wouldnt subject anyone else to it either, before asking for permission. The worse thing they’ll say is no. But you might come away with the best conversation ever.

    And there will always be other ‘interesting’ people who WILL say yes.

    Reply
    • Fernando Gros - 29th November 2011

      Ekta, I think you’ve made a great point there. If someone says no, it’s not the end of the world and, in fact, we can learn a lot from the conversations we have with people who say no. I’ve come to believe that many of skills required to be a good photographer are really people skills – what kind of person are we with a camera in our hands.

      Reply
  • Veronica - 31st July 2014

    It’s really not an easy question to answer. I agree, living in City life makes stealth photography more common, but It’s a bit obtrusive. Only a month ago, I was sitting on a bench eating lunch. A guy literally ran in front of my face, snapped my picture, and ran off. It’s not flattering, It’s annoying. I would say that hiding behind pictures is also annoying, not to mention creepy in a way (we live in a world where we need to question everything, otherwise it wouldn’t be so creepy).

    I like the way you go about it. You make yourself visible; if someone doesn’t want to be in the picture, they can simply move away. I’ve done this many times myself. At festivals or fairs, It’s nice to take random pictures of people enjoying themselves. But they KNOW I’m taking their picture; I don’t snap and run, nor do I hide or lurk around in bushes to get a good shot.

    Very good post, extremely informative and well thought out.

    Reply
  • Jade - 6th August 2014

    There definitely is a difference between people accidentally being in a photograph whilst something else is the focal point to actually being the focal point. As a mother of 4 kids I’m afraid I would be worried about the intentions of a photographer using my child as their “prey” rather than the actual intrusion of the photograph itself. It is a sad world that that matters but it does.
    I have never been worried about being in a photograph myself or my family being caught on the edge or distant background of someone else’s image but if someone sinisterly hid to take a photo, they’d feel my rage as a mother.

    Reply
  • Steve - 14th October 2014

    So true Jade (and yet also so sad) that’s the world we live in, where we’ve become automatically suspicious of the intentions of “strangers” looking (with or without a camera) at us, and especially at children. As a protective father to my precious 9 year old girl, but also someone who got into photography at that same age, I have always been an avid people watcher and I regret how sinical society has become – To the point that I am even conscious of being percieved to “stare” at a moment of joy or laughter in someone else’s kids (if you don’t already know them) and I always make sure to share my reaction with their parents, to reassure them I’m only doing what comes natural to us as human beings and not some weirdo! I see this from both sides of the fence, but it’s important we DO NOT all become overly sensitive, or we WILL all end up as strangers (and then this sort of photography will become all but impossible).

    Fortunately I live in a city where it’s still perfectly ok to talk to strangers (and long may that continue), though I feel a stark contrast when I go to big cities like London, where even making eye contact sometimes is too much of an intrusion! (Yet they’re all perfectly friendly if you got the chance to get to know them). I guess you’ve got to know your environment and when/where it’s ok to dive in and grab a shot (and perhaps seek forgiveness or introduce yourself afterwards), and when to talk to them beforehand, though then you’ll never be able to get that completely natural, candid moment that may have drawn your attention in the first place.

    Steve

    Reply

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About Fernando Gros

In his Tokyo studio Fernando combines his life-long passions for art and technology. On the road, he is always looking to take the next wrong turn, just to see what kind of images and stories might unfold. A photographer & writer, with a background in music, Fernando has lived in Chile, Australia, the UK, Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan. Read More.

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