As photographers, every single one of us is guilty. We have all done it. We wanted to grab our camera and make some photographs in what we thought was an interesting location. What stopped us was the nagging thought that other people may wonder what we are up to.
Cameras have somehow morphed into perceived menaces to society. The “wrong” person holding a camera in the “wrong” situation even brings about thoughts of terrorism.
The more you dissect it, the more interesting it gets. A mom taking pictures at her son’s soccer game draws no attention. This is just “normal” behavior. A man taking pictures of an industrial warehouse however, and red flags go up everywhere.
I can’t think of anything that is more flawed and perverse in society than everyday citizens being the judge of what is acceptable or “normal” to photograph. In the 2006 documentary “Manufactured Landscapes”, which I highly recommend watching, director Jennifer Baichwal follows photographer Edward Burtynsky, who produces photographs of industrial landscapes in China. Burtynsky finds subjects in things like used up piles of computer chips. Certainly not a subject that is “normal” to photograph, and I am sure we could all agree, a man photographing piles of discarded computer innards would be deemed highly suspicious by many of today’s U.S. citizens.
I believe as a society we need to think beyond this mind frame that photography is “ok” only when it comes to sunsets and selfies, and it is suspicious in other arenas. When people feel like they need to know exactly what everyone around them is doing, it creates problems. The constitution is very black and white on this topic. We have the freedom to photograph whatever we’d like in public spaces, and if for whatever reason that is making someone uncomfortable, the consitutions essentially states to the world “to hell with your discomfort, the freedoms afforded to the public are far more important”. This is why the consitution exists, and is upheld as the supreme law of the land, so that someone who is feeling uncomfortable, no matter who they are or how much power they have, can’t prohibit the people’s freedoms.
I have presented a problem: as photographers, we do not give ourselves complete freedom to photograph places or things because of what other people may think. How do we solve this problem? As I find is often the case in life, the answer is astoundingly simple.
Indulge me, and perform this quick exercise. Picture yourself walking on a public street. Everything you are doing is perfectly legal. A complete stranger comes up to you, and says something, and the exercise is, I want you to actually pretend you are there and respond to the stranger’s statement. The stranger says to you: “Excuse me sir/mam, you are not allowed to walk here”.
How did you respond? And, much more importantly, what would you have done?
Would you have stopped walking in that location forever because a complete stranger just so happened to tell you walking was not allowed there? I doubt that. Most likely, you attempted to assure the person as best you could, and further, you deduced that your walking in this area should remain unfettered.
That is exactly what I want you to do when it comes to your photography in public. As long as it is legal, and that will usually mean a public space and not on private property, I want you to photograph whatever you damn well please. Let’s look at the reasons why.
As we grab our cameras fewer and fewer times, I believe our rights are diminished. Do your best not to let others run your life. I believe everyone benefits when we do this. For one, it becomes more common to see people photographing “unusual” subjects. Ideally, we want to reach a point where nobody asks us why we are making photographs in locations where we are clearly allowed to do so. The more people seen photographing “unusual” subjects, the more “normal” it will become, and everyone will be better off.
Lastly, do it for yourself. You are a photographer by profession. Life is short. Do not let the thoughts, or the thoughts you feel others may have, discourage you from exploring your craft to the fullest extent. There are beautiful pieces of art to be made all around you, every single day. Don’t let the irrational fear other people have dictate your behavior and preclude you from capturing these moments.
As professional photographers, I feel this is an important aspect of our daily “work”. We are a relatively small group, and I believe small groups have some of the most efficient leverage to affect large changes. The amazing part is that, all we must do is to do exactly as we’d like with our cameras. If we do that, I feel we can be proud of ourselves for not only maintaining our rights as photographers, but also for maintaining photographic rights for every individual in the country.