The Online Photographer

Check out our new site at!

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Jonathan Greenwald: Conscientious Street Photographer

By Chantal Stone

Street photography has never come easy for me, especially capturing people without them noticing me. It's a style of photography that I love, but I feel way too self-conscious to be stealthy, and often times I miss great shots by poorly framing or exposing incorrectly before scampering off before anyone looks at me. I so greatly admire those photographers who bravely achieve what I can not, which is why I jumped at the opportunity to chat with NYC street photographer Jonathan Greenwald.

On his photoblog, Shrued, Jonathan shares his view of the city where he now lives, New York, and the city in which he will soon reside, Toronto. Full of beauty, surprise, natural wonder, and architectural triumph, Jonathan's photoblog is a virtual tour of the non-touristy sides of these two cities.

But each city has a different side, a side we as outsiders don't often see, and it is through his camera that Jonathan is able to bring light and truth to what goes often unnoticed in two of North America's largest cities. With two projects, called "Signs of The Times" and "Forgotten," Jonathan reveals the homeless of New York and Toronto. Recently Jonathan and I talked about his project photographing the homeless.

Chantal Stone: Why did you start photographing homeless people?

Jonathan Greenwald: I think the idea came from my fascination for photographing people. In my earlier work, I rarely ever photographed someone I didn't know. I was always fearful of the repercussions and would rather avoid contact with my subjects. It wasn't until I was photographing for a little while that I decided to photograph people on the streets of NYC and Toronto. I love human interaction and sometimes the quickest movement, facial expression, or reaction could be captured by the camera and tell a wonderful story. I also enjoy how you never see the same thing twice when you photograph people and the same photograph can tell me one story, but tell the next observer an entirely different story. With everyday people, the story can be anything. With the homeless, the story is always the same; desperation, despair, and poverty. When photographing the homeless, sadness and compassion is a constant theme.

CS: Do you interact with the people you photograph? Ask for permission, or say something afterwards?

JG: In just about every situation, there is no interaction. I never give the subject the impression I'm taking their photograph and almost always look past them when I [shoot]. They probably think I'm taking their photograph, but when I fail to make eye contact with them, they probably think I was photographing something or someone behind them. If someone does catch me in the act, I do my best to ignore them. I learned this method very early on from a good friend of mine, Nick Rhodes. When he and I first walked around New York CIty, I was pointing my camera up at the wonderful architecture and he was pointing his lens in peoples' faces. It worried me at first, but I quickly got over it and tried it myself.

CS: That's an interesting technique. For a lot of people, shooting people on the street can be very intimidating.

JG: I am always asked abut my method and I always give the same advice: never make eye contact. It changes everything, especially the way you photograph people. Make eye contact behind the camera.

CS: You're often right in front of the people you're photographing. It's amazing they're not looking right into the camera.

JG: I also tend to hold the camera at obscure angles so they don't realize I'm even taking a photo. I use a battery grip for the [Canon] 20D which makes portrait shooting a bit easier; I hold the camera from the bottom and snap away. I was toying with the idea of holding the camera around my neck, walking into a crowd, and snapping away with a remote control. It would be interesting to see the results.

CS: Do you ever feel guilty about photographing homeless people and not giving them anything back—or do you give anything?

JG: I struggle with that very question every time I take a photograph. The way I look at it, I am documenting what I see and I don't make light of the situation. I am not in the area long enough to interact with my subjects and if I did, it would likely change the way I photograph people. What I most like about my photographs is the spontaneity and that would be lost if I began interacting with my subjects. I may just continue capturing people, whether homeless or not, without interacting with them. I don't exploit anyone and prefer to show people in their natural [environment].

CS: Do you find differences between the cities? Are there more homeless in one city compared to the other?

JG: I am finding a significant difference between the homeless in New York City and Toronto. I have yet to draw relevant conclusions, but my preliminary assessment is this: the homeless in Toronto are friendlier and more personable. And there is [one] big difference: age. My wife lives in downtown Toronto. Walk in either direction on Queen Street West, and you can encounter as many as four or five homeless kids on a single block. Most are dressed like punks and have signs that tout everything from solicitations for marijuana research to beer. Perhaps it's the amount of foot traffic on that one street in comparison to the multiple access points in New York City.

CS: You mention age. What about differences in the level of desperation?

JG: I think the age difference plays a role in the desperation of homeless people in New York and Toronto. Without knowing someone's situation, it is often easy to see the countless years of struggle and pain etched on the face of an older man or woman. The same struggles do not exist on a younger person. So desperation is much more prevalent in New York.

CS: I love the contrast here:

JG: Park Avenue has some of the nicest buildings in New York. Most are businesses, but a few apartments line this very busy part of the city. It's not uncommon to see a homeless person on the same corner as an affluent business person. And the lack of attention is remarkable. As if this woman does not exist.

CS: Would you call it indifference, or something more negative?

JG: Indifference is probably the right word. Most affluent people would prefer the homeless get a job and or find a different corner to squat. The former is not as easy as the latter. As a culture, especially in NYC, we tend to think of the homeless as a non-entity.

CS: This photo, of the man sitting by the trash, definitely says non-entity.

JG: This gentleman was sitting in this chair, apparently sleeping, for hours on end. I noticed him in the morning and then again when I snapped this photo later on in the afternoon. This is the only time I really wanted to ask what happened, but refrained. He was sitting on the corner of 42nd Street and 5th Avenue. Quite an ideal spot for foot traffic. And he is just as indifferent about the garbage as the pedestrians were about him. However, I will say he was getting his fair share of change.

CS: Are you still photographing the homeless? Is the project a work in progress?

JG: I don't think I'll ever stop, and for several reasons. One, like the affluent, the homeless are very much a part of our society and, unlike the affluent, should not go unnoticed. I don't want to be known as the homeless photographer, rather someone who captures distinct moments in the life of a New Yorker, or Torontonian for that matter.

If I were to publish a book of my work, I don't think the homeless photos could stand on their own, at least not at the moment. Yet, even as I continue to take more photos of the homeless, it's the contrast in our daily lives that tells the entire story. A photograph of a homeless person is a powerful image on its own, but when that same person is photographed with his or her fellow man or woman in the background, paying no attention to the despair only a few feet away, that to me is a much more powerful image.

We always hear about campaigns to help the homeless, but ignorance is never mentioned in any of them. I don't want to change the way everyone thinks about the homeless situation, rather open their eyes and [help them] recognize there really is a problem.
In short, like all of my images, this project will always be a work in progress as long as there are subjects to photograph.

CS: What's next for you, photographically?

JG: I'm hooked on photographing people, although I don't think I can lock myself up in a studio for countless hours staging shots. I don't think I have the patience for it, but that could change in the future. So in the meantime, I will continue to walk the streets of NYC and Toronto, expecting the people of these great cities continue to go about their day to day lives, giving me an opportunity to capture every moment. People are fascinating subjects because you never know what to expect and every moment can either make us laugh hysterically or feel immense sorrow. That's the beauty of photography. It's a moment in time and it's up to the viewer to recreate that moment in their minds without ever knowing or meeting the person in the photograph.



Blogger Ken Tanaka said...

Several of this fellow's images are quite compelling and heartbreaking.

Nevertheless, I see only exploitation for entertainment and personal ingratiation in this fellow's images. I don't see much evidence of a compassionate or "conscientious" eye in the viewfinder. He's collecting images of homeless people in the same spirit as others might collect stamps or coins; they're souvenirs to him. He tells nothing of his subjects' predicaments because, contrary to his rather self-conscious "I love human interaction" asserion he admittedly has no contact with them and learns nothing of them. Like most people he's probably afraid of them. Afraid they'll embarass him. Afraid they'll ask him for money. Afraid they'll smell bad.

I have lived in dense urbanity ...never suburbia... nearly all of my life and, as such, homeless people have been a fact of my daily life for over fifty years. In fact, as I write this there are probably quite a few homeless people sleeping just outside the lowest level of my building. Nevertheless, although I am a photographer I avoid photographing homeless people in the same spirit as I would avoid photgraphing my neighbors or friends caught in difficult personal situations. The exception I would make, and indeed have made, is when my photographs would be used to illustrate a narrative that might help the subjects.

I have no problem with "street" photography. Done well it can capture a rich visual soup of irony, humor, and contradictions from human activity in public places. Yes, it also captures human misery. I do have a problem with empty exploitation of human misery.

Maybe this fellows next "project" should be to actually make contact with one or two of these people to learn their stories. He would be able to use his camera skills to much better advantage and would learn that these are mostly people who have not had the advantages that keep him fed, warm, and clothed today. He would also learn that he, or his friends or family, might be closer to being homeless than they might imagine. Lose your job, lose your ability to work at all, become badly ill without insurance, become a victim of identity theft and you too can be holding a cardboard sign on cold city streets in no time at all.

12:20 AM  
Blogger Dierk Haasis said...

Mr Greenwald, in my opinion [only gained from the interview here published], is even worse than those 'affluent' people he sneers at.

He shows a photo with a homeless lady sitting on the curb and parts of a well-off lady standing near her. The photo is framed to convey a towering indifference, an in-your-face 'rich does not care'. Well, we don't know how the lady in business attire really acted towards the homeless one; she probably gave graciously. Something Mr Greenwald does not, as per his words.

He does not avoid interaction with people he knows not or cares not about. He seeks it - as long as it is one-sided: He wants to be master, they have to be more objects. Greenwald seems to be proudly claiming techniques to avoid any contact from those he bans into pictures, like looking away when they try to make eye contact. Even relatively intricate ploys to make them not realise what he's up to.

Just think what would happen if someone with a camera comes into your home [doesn't need to be, can be on a public street], firing away and then avoiding you when you want to ask what's going on.

One of the great obstacles and satisfactions of street photography is the interaction with subjects, not the banning of objects. It is only easy when it comes to camera settings and technical details. Street photogrpahy is hard when you have to take responsibility for what you are doing.

2:04 AM  
Blogger matt said...

here here, ken. I might add that I distinctly remember in an essay about one of Winogrand's workshops that he always made eye contact, always gave some acknoledgement of the person being photographed- a smile, a look, something. When you feel you shouldn't be seen doing something, then maybe you shouldn't do it! You are there, a part of the world, so don't worry about being seen or interacting with people. You are taking pictures and there is nothing wrong with that.

2:25 AM  
Blogger 1ds3 said...

i agree with ken here

i much prefer photographers who interact a bit with their subjects when it comes to homelessness

the best example would be

the only reason i would take a picture of the guy sleeping in my entrance using the dirty floor mat as a blanket would be to make aware to others that some people do that

5:36 AM  
Blogger Scott said...

I had the same reaction as Ken. (But probably wouldn't have said anything.) Thanks for spelling it out.


5:48 AM  
Blogger Matthew Miller said...

I can't help but be reminded of this article.

7:12 AM  
Blogger Max said...

Ken, you said it. I was lacking courage to say it, but I feel it's exploitation too. Especially, how insensitive can a person be to say openly "just avoid eye contact". It's like those persons were dogs or something. "Get their misery, but don't let their humanity get to you".
Don't do to others what you wouldn't like to be done to yourself. And frankly, someone shooting pictures of you when you're at your worst is not something I'd like to experience. In a bigger scene, I wonder how the majority of photographers would feel if, while they are going through their usual life someone stopped and shot a picture as if it were some kind of curiosity, without bothering to interact in any way. I wouldn't like it, I think.

7:29 AM  
Blogger Daniel said...

Very well, said Ken. I completely agree.

I understand the photographers desire for spontaneity, but if he really is interested in documenting these people, once the pictures are taken, finding out who these people are seems like common courtesy at the very least

8:30 AM  
Blogger Mike said...

I shoot on the street extensively and I had decided pretty early on that I would not photograph homeless people.

Since the homeless live on the street, to me it is an invasion of privacy. Most are mentally ill or are suffering from some sort of substance abuse and cannot object due to a lack of awareness. How would we like it if someone sneaked into out bedrooms and photographed us rolling out of bed in the morning?

If one were truly conscientious, one would ask permission to photograph them as you would knock on the door of someone you did not know before entering their house and taking a photograph.

Photographing the homeless is an age old cliche. It's something that every amateur is fascinated by, as if the homeless possess some unknown nobility by enduring such hardships and photographing them gives the images instant gravitas.

To me, it is expolitation pure and simple. It's too easy a subject matter to get other people to say ooooooh!

Try photographing people who are fully aware of their surroundings, people who know you are there, people with the mental and verbal skills to give you grief if they choose, people who you can look in the eye and see a reflection of yourself and who will look back at you. Can you do that and not turn away, perhaps give them a smile and a nod like Winogrand? Can you? That's the challenge. Being sneaky is not a challenge, it's dishonest.

When I photograph on the street, I make my intentions obvious, people know exactly what I am doing and nobody ever gets in my face about it.

In an effort to give full disclosure, I do have a photograph of a woman who looks homeless as she sits on the steps of the NYPL holding an empty coffee cup for people to drop change into. However if you look at her clean skirt and new shoes you might begin to wonder, her sweater is too large, but quite appropriate for the weather and not at all tattered or dirty. But she does have a wonderfully lined face that does all of the work for her and elicits sympathy from the wandering tourists. The thing that really tipped me off was seeing her a little while earlier chatting on her cell phone. So I doubt she was homeless, but even so, I must have stood before her for a good 3-4 minutes with the camera waiting for the throngs to pass. When she looked at me, I smiled and she went back to shaking her cup.

If someone wanted to do something for the homeless, they should volunteer at a shelter or soup kitchen, or maybe hand out blankets in the winter, or run for mayor.

There was a photographer who's name I cannot remember that used to bring a background and lights on to the street and ask homeless people if he could photograph them. He would set up his portable studio and make a dignified portrait of the person, and he gave them a print or a polaroid, perhaps some cash too. At least he was honest about what he was doing and gave his subjects an opportunity to get themselves together.

8:43 AM  
Blogger Tim said...

Sorry to be critical but this does seem like the most cowardly and stereotypical way of photographing homeless people. The 'safetey' instructions also sound like they were written for dealing with animals, not people.

8:52 AM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

To me there's also the issue of whether each of these individuals WANTS to be photographed. I taught briefly at at a big-city art school located in a downtown metropolitan area, and a common subject for neophyte photographers set loose in the surrounding community were our homeless. Trouble is, those of us at the school knew some of these people--and many of them considered the photographers a nuisance or worse. At one point, a committee of homeless came to the school and asked them to prohibit the students from taking their pictures! One man said (I paraphrase), "It may be only a cardboard box, but it's where I live. I don't want someone taking a picture of me in my home without my permission."

In another case, a show of local street photography went up at the museum connected to the school, and one of the homeless recognized himself in one of the pictures. He demanded that the picture be taken down, as it showed him in "a bad light," not at his best, etc. The legal advisors of the museum assured the museum that it was perfectly legal to keep the offending picture up on the wall, and some people thought that taking it down amounted to a form of censorship, especially since the person in question was not the main subject of the picture. But the museum opted to take down the picture as a gesture of respect for the individual's wishes (the possibility of bad PR might have entered into the calculation as well).

The saddest case was "The Plastic Bag Man." He was a mentally deranged individual who lived in the park across the street from the school. One day he had a "wardrobe malfunction" that allowed his posterior to show, to the shock of passing tourists, so two cops chased him down--they had to tackle him--and tied a plastic bag around his waist, admonishing him sternly to keep it there or they'd be back. Well, the poor guy then took it as his mission to somehow affix to himself every scrap of discarded plastic he came across, and before long he was a mass of ragged plastic sheeting. He was extremely neurotic and averse to being approached by people, so if anyone got too close to him he would bolt away. So for a few years in there, pictures of "Plastic Bag Man" in full regalia, fleeing from a pursuer, plastic in full flutter, were prized as original by a succession of student photographers in from the suburbs. Of course those of us who knew the guy knew this for what it really was: harassment, bordering on cruelty.

One morning Plastic Bag Man was found dead in the park, evidently of natural causes--if you can call it "natural" when exposure, a very poor diet, and a total lack of medical care are factored in. (I guess what I'm trying to say is that he wasn't murdered.)


8:56 AM  
Blogger bjorke said...

In the first volume of "History of the Photobook" Parr & Badger have an insightful passage about how the first book we would recognize as "street photo," John Thomson's 1877 "Street Life in London," was preceded by another from the same photographer on faraway China, then largely unseen by Victorians. Both subjects - the Chinese and domestic street people - were perceived as equally exotic for Thomson's polite readership

And both books served to identify and reinforce the class assumptions of the time. How does this new work in Toronto differ? What have we learned in 130 years of street photo?

Without engagement, with a remote eye and a sort of collecting of homeless people into superficial classifications ("Signs of the Times"?), isn't this just another exercize in defining these people as "others" and reducing them to types?

10:06 AM  
Blogger Shrued said...

I typically wouldn't comment in a situation like this, but after reading so many textbook comments, I feel compelled to respond.

There is a lot of talk about interaction here and I don't see how "documenting" a situation means one must communicate. In fact, when I first started photographing people on the street, homeless or not, I always asked permission. I was nervous about photographing anyone, so I felt asking would provide that comfort level. In each occasion, the subject smiled, posed, or acted unnaturally. That was not the message I wanted to convey. To me, it's more important to capture people in their best and worst. I respect Ryan's photograph at snowsuit, but a homeless person smiling is not an accurate way of capturing the essence of a person. Albeit, I do agree with both sides of the argument.

I don't subscribe to any textbook style of photographing people on the street. In fact, there are countless ways to photograph someone. I will not gain from this article, unless you count a little bump in site hits; which to be perfectly honest, doesn't get me excited. I enjoy taking photos of people my way and take pride in the discussions each photo provokes.

I am bringing to light a situation that I think should change (hear what I said in the story about Yahoo's Time Capsule -, and have no desire to do anything outside of that. If people think I'm exploiting someone, that's their right, but I hope people will look at the photographs and say, "I didn't notice this when I was in NYC." Which is exactly the reaction I get all the time.

11:08 AM  
Blogger Charlie Didrickson said...

While I don't share quite the same contempt for Jonathan's "style" as many of you seem to, I think he deserves a bit more bebefit of doubt.

Jonathan seems to have a genuine interest in the circumstances and effects that being homeless has on both those affected and us as a society.

CS: Are you still photographing the homeless? Is the project a work in progress?

JG: I don't think I'll ever stop, and for several reasons. One, like the affluent, the homeless are very much a part of our society and, unlike the affluent, should not go unnoticed. I don't want to be known as the homeless photographer, rather someone who captures distinct moments in the life of a New Yorker, or Torontonian for that matter.

I think this statement proves my point: He clearly is intent on using these projects to bring awareness to the situation. How that is done outside of them being disseminated on the web is yet to be seen. I am in fact in a similar situation regarding some of my own work.

That said, I have taken a very different but sometimes similar approach. Yes I have taken a few images of homeless men and women without them being aware. One thing I have never done was not try to make contact with them. I have always offered money as well as occasionally gloves, a hat or in one instance my jacket. I mention that I took their pic without them knowing and show it to them on my LCD. I ask if it OK if I keep it and would they mind? None have ever asked for it to be deleted. That said the most important image to me is the portrait I ask to take.

Like many I feel I have a higher sense of responsibility when photographing the homeless or those just barely getting by and working the street for spare change. I'm not sure why though (empathy,guilt,acknowledgement and fear of just how slippery that slope is?) I take advantage of other people in the exact same manner and never ever feel guilty about it. As far as I know, my images have never had a negative effect on any of their lives. I am still working on some way to use these images to make a difference.

Indeed part of the "buzz" and energy of certain styles of street shooting is the idea that you are catching people unaware and hopefully on that rare occassion capturing the extrordinary in the ordinary.

Is that "fair" or is that always exploitation regardless of the subject's station in life?

I say it's always exploitation, but does it ever have a negative result?

PS Winogrand most certainly took people's photos unaware. I think his point might have been that like me, he always fessed up after the fact when possible and did not hide the fact?

I like many of Jonathon's images and don't think his style is worthy of such harsh criticism. MAybe someday he will change his mind about making contact with the people he photographs. Maybe not, but he is not the criminal many want to make him out to be.

Interesting post.

11:43 AM  
Blogger Adam McAnaney said...

Well. What an interesting post, with responses.

I'll be honest. I haven't always been a fan of Chantal's contributions. It isn't that the photoblogs she picked weren't interesting, it was the fact that the accompanying posts were too laudatory, too uncritical. The posts sounded like PR fluff, rather than probing analysis of an artist's work.

This week's selection is quite a departure. First, I dislike the pictures, for all of the reasons Ken put out there. But more importantly, Chantal didn't hesitate to ask tough questions. Part of the reason people are giving Mr. Greenwald a hard time is because Chantal asked all of the right questions and didn't leave a lot of room to mince words. Frankly, this was really well done. A lot of journalists would do well to match Chantal's interview skills here.

What I can't figure out, however, is whether Chantal actually likes Mr. Greenwald's street photography, or not. If I hadn't seen any of Chantal's posts before, I would think "Jonathan Greenwald: Conscientious Street Photographer" was a clever bit of irony. But given that her past posts have been unabashedly enthusiastic, it is hard to tell.

I suspect that Chantal is more multi-faceted than I have hitherto given her credit for.* Something people might want to keep in mind when judging Mr. Greenwald on the basis of the limited evidence available to us.

One more thing: more than anything else, this reminds my of Mike's satirical post outlawing pictures of the homeless. I would link to it, but I don't have three days to go through the archives. Yet another reason to include a search function, Mike!

Best regards,

* Corollary: I have been quicker to unfairly judge than I would like to admit.

11:48 AM  
Blogger tim atherton said...

The streetphoto list came up with some more practical suggestions for Mr. Greenwald
(apologies to JB)

I think they should market a 'street blind', like one of these, only
made to look like a garbage receptacle

or maybe an urban photographer's version of this

and perhaps one of these modified to fit to a lamp post?

11:57 AM  
Blogger Ade said...

...Well, I think we can all be grateful to Chantal for bringing another interesting photoblogger to our attention. And I'm sure he's grateful for the attention too now.

1:28 PM  
Blogger Rob said...

To see another approach to this, look at this flickr set:

For every one of these pictures he hasn't just asked permission, he has really gotten to know the person. And not until then does he take an amazing portrait. Even though they are only head shots, and don't show anything about the environment the person lives in, the story he attaches to the photo, and the face, which he can now shoot directly because of the contact, tell far more about the world of homelessness than do Mr. Greenwald's, in my opinion.

4:27 PM  
Blogger xtoph said...

i was flabbergasted to read the interview with this 'conscientious street photographer'. i know from experience that the attitudes he exhibits are all too common, but this is a particularly egregious case of hypocrisy. under the title of 'conscientious', no less, he deplores how, at least in his imagination, rich people ignore the plight of homeless folks--while giving detailed instructions on how to avoid interaction with and acknowledgment of homeless folks.

but most telling was his conviction that the story of homeless folks is "always the same", an unrelenting litany of desperation and despair. this is insulting, dehumanizing, and just plain wrong. people in all kinds of circumstances are multifaceted; even inmates of concentration camps achieve moments of dignity (consider, eg, solzhenitsyn's portrait in "a day in the life of ivan denisovich") and even of pleasure. this is not to deny the real hardship and injustice of poverty; but if you categorically exclude such representations from photographs of people living on the street, you are actively propagating negative stereotypes of people who really don't need any more strikes against them.

i am not one of those people who thinks that any photo ever taken of a homeless person is an inexcusable infringement on that person's rights. these days, responsible street photography faces unprecedented obstacles, and we ought to bear these circumstances in mind as we ply our vocations. this is part of what i find so disturbing about the interview: it perpetuates this bizarre idea that the only way to get good street photographs is to take the photos secretly, through deception. no matter how many times that chestnut is cracked, it always seems to return again, and we get ridiculous tactics like using telephoto lenses, remote controlled cameras, misdirection, mirror lenses... the problem with all of which, besides being downright unsavory practices, is that they generally result in very poor photos. great street photographers have almost never resorted to such tactics, yet it seems nearly impossible to persuade most ersatz practitioners of that fact.

i am heartened, though, to see that more than a few readers reacted along the same lines as i have here. honestly, it does give me some hope, even if we still seem a bit like voices in the wilderness.

if i remember correctly it was this very site which published some time back a satirical article about the banning of photos of homeless people. greenwald would do well to read it and ponder his behavior.

4:30 PM  
Blogger dasmb said...

I think it's a very limiting statement to say you'll never photograph any class of people, especially if it's out of respect for their desire to be photographed or not. Most great street photographs are of unconsenting, possibly unwilling participants, and if street photography is truly about documenting the interesting elements of what some consider mundane then it shouldn't matter.

As for exploitation, if a guy's on the street with a sign I don't see how taking a picture of him is really altering that situation. I do think the attitude of not making eye contact seems kind of creepy and aloof, and think if you're going to document a person's lowest moments you should at least slide them a couple of bucks.

I was in Austin, TX two weeks ago for South by Southwest, the indepedendent media festival. There were a lot of panhandlers and street artists around and the sucessful ones were cultivating a personality that encouraged people to give them hand outs. (For example, one guy was claiming to be a rock star looking for cab fare to chase down his "Mexican friends who just took off with my guitar.") Walking by with my camera, the most ostentatious of these folks pretty much begged me to take their photographs. I shot a couple of them and felt obliged to give them a couple of bucks in return, something I'm sure they were relying on.

Remember, glamorous or not, this is how they make money. Yeah, they might use your change to buy drugs or alcohol, but the same could be said for the cab driver who takes me home or the kid who makes my sandwich. I still tip them.

4:30 PM  
Blogger Edward Casati said...

Years ago I took a "photo 101" type class at a local community college. I didn't need the class, I just wanted access to the darkroom.
Best teacher ever... he figured we would finally figure out the technical stuff, but he wanted to push the creative side so....

List of items that we were NOT allowed to take photos of because they have been done so much:
5. Flowers
4. Our kids
3. Mountain reflected in lake
2. Our own shadows
1. Homeless guy in bus stop

I got away with doing 'light paintings of flowers' but not much more. I guess if the 'overdone' subject is approached from a different direction, then it is worth exploring some more.

4:31 PM  
Blogger xtoph said...

oh dear. shrued posted his comment after i submitted mine, and i would like to point out that, while i don't think anyone is trying to tell him what he can or cannot do, he continues to offer contradictory rationales for his photographic practices. on the one hand, he describes his photos as documentary, and justifies them in terms of accurately representing reality; on the other hand, he rejects smiling portraits because "that is not the message i wanted to convey". you can't really have it both ways; either you are interested in documenting reality complete with lows _and_ highs, or you are interested in shaping the representation to fit your agenda, what you judge that person's true nature to be (despite not interacting with them, nor asking them about their life). i don't know why this idea is so challenging; photographs of the rich and powerful routinely seek to portray the angst and ennui of their lives, which is praised as insightful and 'true'; why are photos of the poor often judged lacking if the depict moments of happiness or just human complexity? very few people can exist in a continual state of total abjection. there is nothing 'unnatural' about a poor person smiling; on the contrary, what is unnatural is to insist that they only be represented as immobile, impotent lumps on the pavement.

if it is all just a matter of technique, then i recommend you try a little harder. okay, so the first stiff posed smile after you ask permission isn't what you are after; fine, take another photo, and another. 9 times out of 10 the person will go on with their life. or just spend enough time with this person that you actually learn something about their life, instead of using their image to make a point about who you imagine them to be. take pictures over the course of 20 minutes, or a 2 days, or 2 months. chances are you will make far, far better photographs, and they will have a plausible claim to document something real.

as for a putative function of educating the public about the existence of homelessness in our nations cities... well, i just find that implausible. if you want to educate, to open our eyes, show us something we _don't_ already know (such as the humanity, the individual stories of the homeless, for a start). that's one of the great powers of photography.

4:54 PM  
Blogger carpeicthus said...

Why wasn't my previous comment, left this morning, posted? I know blogs have problems with comment spam, but this verification system is awful. Among other things, it makes conversation nearly impossible. When I posted my comment, it was a reaction to the story, as there were no comments. Now it would seem mostly redundant.

4:58 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

This isn't Mayberry.. a photographer takes a shot because they're a photographer and something catches their eye.. sure our eyes have agendas be they positive or negative just like non photogs.. its just that when we see something and shoot theres evidence of how we looked at something. Good or bad. If its roses you want, be a gardener. Everyone has their own style.. is there a rule that says you have to interact with your subjects in the art of street photography.. how about the pioneers of street photography who used cameras that were designed to deceive the person being photographed.. or the cameras hidden beneath coats on trains.

I've always thought that a photographer should be concerned about the moment at hand first and foremost and then with the consequences of taking the shot. From an American perspective, we have it pretty good when it comes to photographers rights as far as the law is concerned. In street photography there is very little that we cannot photograph as far as the law is concerned.. everything else is inside the photographer. A document of what their eye is sending to their mind and the mind is sending back to the eye and hands. And when a shot is made its as valid as the next.. although validity isn't to be confused with quality or importance.

6:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i'm surprised no one remembers this post.

maybe i've just been reading TOP for too long...

7:21 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

"Why wasn't my previous comment, left this morning, posted?"

This is the only comment I've gotten from you. Maybe you hit the wrong button this morning....


7:34 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

Anybody ever seen that guy on TV who has a political talk show? I don't recall his name but: glasses, looks like a confused owl, talks like he has a mouth full of crackers. Practically the definition of "blowhard."

Anyway, at the end of his show once he asked his guests' opinions, went around the table one by one, then roared, "WRONG!" and pronounced what HE thought.

Well, I kinda feel like that can imagine me mimicking him...I feel like getting a mouth full of stuffing and yelling "WRONG!" Fact is, a) everybody has a right to photograph how they like and as they see fit, AND b) everybody has a right to respond to that work as they feel it deserves. So really, both the photographer and the respondants here are right..."WRONG! EVERYBODY'S right!"

I'll stop channeling talk-show hosts now. (Actually, this message is a pretty good Tom Snyder....)


7:44 PM  
Blogger Daniel said...


It was the McLaughlin hour, and I remember they did a really funny send up of that guy on Saturday Night Live.


9:11 PM  
Blogger dasmb said...

Hey, I just want to apologize to the guy whose portrait I linked earlier...I just realized I spent the whole post mentioning the homeless and had actually linked a guy who was a hard working street musician from Austin (hence the bass guitar and mic). My own fault for linking from work.

I did take some shots of the obviously destitute, but none of those shots were really all that great.

Aside: of the street people I've met, the ones I always help out without fail are the ones with dogs or the ones with instruments. There was a guy in Bath, UK with a little Stafordshire mix and a tin pipe, I swear I would have bankrolled him at the pub all night if he'd let me. My thoughts of the endless yellow row houses in that lovely city ring out with the shrill sounds of that pipe and the warmth of that dog's belly.

10:05 PM  
Blogger Peter said...

I'm not going to weigh into the thorny ethics of homeless photography, but this posting did strike a chord with me in terms of street photography in general. Namely, it was refreshing to hear someone advocate non-interaction with other people in street photography. One constantly comes across the idea that street photography is all about interaction with the subject. This is often linked to the advocacy of normal or wide lenses, and criticism of longer lenses as being somehow voyeuristic. Oddly, the same conversation will often mention the compactness and quiet of a range finder as being ideal for street photography because of its discreteness. I for one have never bought the argument that street photography is about interaction with the subject. I am convinced that 99% of street photographers are as shy as the interviewer in this post, and our reluctant to engage their subjects. Most of my own street work takes place in the 100 to 200 mm range. I am not looking to document my interaction with people on the street. It is the people themselves in their "natural environments" that is interesting to me. The knowledge that one is being photographed invariably changes countless aspects of the way a person presents him or herself. You never hear about wildlife photographers preaching the use of a Leica with a 50 mm lens because it allows intimacy with their subject. Without likening humans and animals, I think there are valid comparisons to be drawn between wildlife and street photography. Perhaps it is easier to be exploitive with a long lens; I certainly agree that not all street photography is created equal, and that some stands on morally shaky ground. But the idea that it is the duty of the photographer to interact with the subject, and that a lack of this interaction casts and moral cloud on the photography, strikes me as absurd.


4:00 AM  
Blogger andrew said...

I'm not sure about many of the comments here. The camera is always obtrusive in some way. In the end it is the image that matters. No-one is going to care later whether he made eye contact or not or was totally ruthless in taking the pictures if they were exceptional. I'm not that comfortable with taking this type of shot myself, but I'm glad there are others who can do it. We'd be missing out on some incredible pictures if there weren't.

The thing I don't like is that mostly they are pretty boring shots . The subject is, as discussed, totally overdone, so it would have to be something pretty exceptional to be interesting and they are not. I would be more interested in a series of the homeless' shoes than this .

5:06 AM  
Blogger A Glimpse of the World said...

On the one hand, I'm troubled by the element of systematic deception described by this shooter. On the other, on the evidence of the images shown, I see no connection with the subjects, nothing terribly revealing, and no intimacy whatsoever.
Each to his own on shooting styles and methods.
If you're really interested in human beings, that is, more than the clinical, or in finding clever compositions, you'll have to get over your inhibitions and learn to engage. This takes a million forms, and like most things, there is no one right way. Once you plunge in, though, you'll realize that all the subterfuge and evasion built into your style in the past was nothing less than a thick screen, preventing you from getting at your subject.

May I provide some examples?

11:57 AM  
Blogger Daniel said...

A glimpse,

I just checked out your flickr page, and all I can say is...Holy Shit.

Mr. Greenwald could learn a few things taking a look at some of your incredible work.


1:10 PM  
Blogger FILE said...

In general, I am not a huge fan of street photography (especially of the homeless), although I have seen some of it, including Jonathon and Ryan's (Snowsuit), that I admire. At any rate, I'm not sure, once you accept street photography as a valid form, that the person's circumstances have anything to do with whether or not an image of them is "exploitive". Whether the person is rich, poor, badly dressed, handicapped, obese, ugly, or beautiful...does it make a difference? To some degree, all of those types are being "exploited".

Exploit can have two meanings, both of which are somewhat odious: "to utilize, esp. for profit; turn to practical account: to exploit a business opportunity," or "to use selfishly for one's own ends: employers who exploit their workers". I do not see the latter being the case, and if the former is the case, aren't all photographers -- whether the subject is inanimate or not -- "guilty" of this?

As for his technique of not engaging his subjects, this is surely a valid method, just as Ryan's is another valid technique. Both achieve different results, and help complete a larger view of the human condition. I think it is unquestionable that a person who knows they are being photographed will behave differently than a person who is not; to ignore

I suppose what this is really about is "morality": should someone just take pictures of the indigent without aiding them? There is no easy answer to this, but as a person who lives in a large city with many, many homeless people, the fact is that unless it is your job to assist these folks, as a practical matter you are regularly forced to walk past and basically ignore them many times a day. Photographing these people at leasts acknowledges the fact that these people exist, and by doing this and presenting them to the world, their lives and humanity are preserved.

11:33 AM  
Blogger said...

I gotta say, this is much ado about nothing to me. I don't subscribe to the exploitation theory or that one ever needs to ask permission to take any photograph in public. This especially applies to someone who is doing something as public as begging for money.

7:06 AM  
Blogger Paul said...

Considering all the hardship in the world -- and the moral high-horse that so many commenters have ridden in on -- you would think that all these people would be out working for others instead of dissecting and extrapolating a relatively harmless interview.

While I don't find the photographer's work particularly compelling, I am struck by the ridiculousness of this debate. The man takes photographs on public property of individuals that for whatever reason are in the lowest societal position. His photographs are seen by his friends, family, and followers. People who see his work immediately notice the theme and can put the pieces together: there are a lot of homeless people in NY. There is no doubt that his work is emphasizing an issue that society has neglected for decades. As this is a photography site, I think it would really be best to discuss the work and avoid such pointed discussions of morality.

Would you take photographs of a young, poor child somewhere in Africa? Latin America? Asia? By the arguments of these commenters, they wouldn't. And they would be missing an excellent opportunity to share with the world the way that others are living -- just as this photographer is.

9:00 AM  
Blogger Aman said...

I agree with Ken. I too am a photographer and am fascinated by street photography but have made it a point never to shoot homeless people. It is nothing but self gratification. It is for the same reasons that I hate it when people go to third world countries and shoot homeless kids/people so that they can come back and show the pictures over dinner and show some pseudo pity and carry on with their dinner. It is exploitation nothing less.

And for those insensitive souls that don't see the homeless in flesh when they are walking the streets, a picture would hardly change their mind or get them thinking. Those are hollow arguments which the photographer seems to make up to justify his/her action in their own mind.

12:43 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home