I write this a week following an altercation on the street as I took photographs that has significantly affected me and forced me to confront my personal photographic ethics. From a place where I was feeling very comfortable about my photographic practice and strategies, I now feel on edge and conflicted – it is not too dramatic to say that I am feeling a moment of crisis that is forcing me to confront a number of uncomfortable realities about myself, my privilege and the violence of my photographic gaze. I have spent the week following this event despondent and even questioning if I can continue. I am now at a point where I can process and make sense both of what happened and how it has affected me – I am hoping that this intense period of introspection will ultimately be something that forces me to interrogate how I move my practices and strategies forward – how to work in a more considered, ethical and strategic way – to make me think long and hard about the photographer I want to be.
Anyway – here is what happened –
I set out about 8am on Sunday 4th April 2021 for a walk taking my camera with me. Walking was the main purpose of going out with taking photographs a secondary consideration – I had no preconceived ideas about what I would photograph, but I hoped something might spark my imagination and lead to a project I could pursue.
I took a route along the back streets, taking a few images without much consideration mainly of things that caught my attention such as shadows and details. I noticed a house that was particularly run down with bed sheets used over the windows as curtains and took a photograph. In a matter of moments I heard shouts of ‘what are you doing?’ and was quicky faced with an extremely agitated and angry man. He stood in front of me repeating his question with a hyper-agitated demeanour, bobbing from side to side, coming close and then moving away. He continually asked me to explain myself while not allowing me to speak. I cannot remember the exact exchange – it seemed to last forever and yet be over within moments – but these points have stayed with me:
- He asked ‘what was I doing at 2 in the morning?’ When I answered it was about 8 o’clock to which he did not respond well. I noticed a strong smell of weed coming from his house which partly explained the way he was behaving.
- He asked me how would I like to be photographed by him in my kitchen? This was something I had not even considered until after the event – someone taking a photograph of my house in the way I had of his would be deeply disconcerting to me – so what gives me the right to do this?
- I tried to explain I was doing a photography degree and making a documentary project about the local area to which he responded ‘bullshit!’ I must admit this explanation sounded poor even as the words left my mouth.
At some point he began filming the exchange on his phone. Although there is a certain poetic justice on him turning the camera on me, this is something that made me extremely uncomfortable – what would he do with this? I worried what would happen if he posted it to social media – it would be difficult to imagine that I would gain much sympathy, in fact, I imagined most people would think the reaction was justified. I wondered how I try to explain myself to friends and family.
After what seemed like an age he told me to go, move on and if he ever saw me round here again he would kill me. As I walked away he shouted ‘fucking crank’ and I was in no doubt that I had been extremely lucky that the incident had not become violent.
While I certainly do not want to get into a fight, this is not the main thing that bothers me about the confrontation – I know hand on heart that I would struggle to justify what I was doing. Knowing this makes me realise that taking the image at all was wrong. I chose to photograph this particular house because it was run down with smashed windows and looked like the home of someone living a chaotic life. I could justify taking the photograph with an argument about the documentary value of the scene, but I was really succumbing to the allure of ‘poverty porn’ by pressing the shutter. Although the house is only 13 streets away from my own, the life and circumstances of the person I encountered are 100 miles away from mine. What would I expect or want these images to say? Just because I can take a photograph, does not mean I should.