So yesterday I went to see the amazing Gordon Parks’ exhibition at the Schomburg Center in Harlem. If you live in New York, or are planning to come visit, GO to this exhibition. It’s modest in size but the portraits are beautiful and intimate photographs of black life during the 1940′s in Harlem and Washington, D.C.
Feeling inspired by casual photographs of Harlem, I set out to photograph the neighboring streets of the area. I wandered around the brownstone-lined streets and came upon an older gentleman casually leaning up against a gate. I managed to surreptitiously snap a street scene with his image with my phone but I decided on a different approach. Inspired by how Gordon Parks would ask his subject matter if he could photograph to capture the sentiment he was trying to convey and the fact he kindly nodded and smiled at me, I walked up to the older man and asked politely if I could take his picture.
“No, no, no!” He said vigorously, shaking his head. The smile vanished.
I politely nodded and kept walking and deleted the picture that I had of him. Technically, I still use it for whatever I wanted. There’s no privacy expectation of taking pictures of people in public so I wasn’t doing anything illegal, even I wanted to use the image, but I wanted to be respectful of his feelings and won’t use it.I didn’t want to exploit that. (I’ll write more about privacy expectations and photography in a later post).
I mention this little anecdote because it reflects back and forth feelings I feel when doing street photography, particularly when people are involved. Although I usually use my iPhone to take pictures of people that I encounter or see in passing, there are times when I feel I’m being a bit of a voyeur, that someone’s moment of innocence or solitude is just being splashed around for the world to see.
I guess this is all a part of the comfort zone that one as a photographer has to grow into. Aside from capturing what is just aesthetically beautiful, there also seems to be some sort of responsibility to document one’s surroundings and the world at large. To me, this responsibility gives way to those intrepid photographers that take shots in dangerous and challenging circumstances. It’s also how those important stories get told, such as when Gordon Parks used his camera to shine a spotlight on racial and social inequality in the United States and poverty in Brazil. Then again, I’m sure that in during these projects, Gordon Parks came across his share of rejection too. He probably had to develop a pretty thick skin as a photographer.
I can’t help but wonder if the advent of social networking like Facebook and Instagram make people feel wary of being photographed and possibly having their image shared with thousands of people. Sometimes all this digital “interaction” can make people feel wary of being exploited; not everyone is craving to be in the spotlight.
Ironically, on my way home, as I was taking a picture of the Lenox Lounge facade, some random guy deliberately jumped into my frame and started posing. After having to listen to him try to rap and enduring a few random pick-up lines, I began to wish that would’ve been like the guy who rejected my offer to photograph him.