Saturday, April 08, 2006

A photographer's dilemma

Click the images to view higher-resolution versions.

Boston is a wonderful city for pedestrians. Every corner opens up a new view on something that makes you want to stop and stare for a while. Walking to a given destination with a specific time in mind can be difficult because of all the stops along the way. But it's so worth it.

So there I was on Friday, walking through a packed Quincy Market and wondering how to find the water. Anytime I'm in a place that's alongside the ocean, a lake or even a river, I do my best to spend some time on the waterfront. I know it sounds odd, but there's something cathartic about being there, on the edge of the land looking out at the watery emptiness.

The color of the water, the smell of the air, the snap of the wind in your hair, the sound of the breeze, the birds and the lapping waves. This unique sensory soup makes you think. It pushes all the conflicting messages of our supercharged lives out of our immediate view and forces us to simply spend some quiet time, alone. It allows us to wonder why we don't do relaxing stuff like this more often. Why is that?

After a few minutes of quiet time by the water's edge, I checked my watch and started to walk back. I had colleagues to meet, a plane to catch, and a family waiting at home.

I stopped to shoot a water fountain in Columbus Park on the way back. Lucky me for stumbling across something so genteel in the middle of a beautiful park. The rotunda was filled with pedestrians from all walks of life. A mother pushing a stroller alongside her friend. A group of tourists taking in the scene. An older couple spending some couplehood time by the water. I took out my camera and trained it on the fountain.

When I was done, I turned around and noticed him. A homeless man was asleep on the bench. I stopped dead in my tracks. A beautiful scene, filled with beautiful people enjoying a beautiful day, all completely ignorant of the low-key tragedy of this one person's life.

I wasn't sure what to do: shoot the scene so that I could tell the story of how cruel and unfair life can seem almost within the same frame, or keep my camera tucked away because I wouldn't want to upset him.

I hemmed and hawed for a bit, wondering what to do. I politely turned down the tourist group's offer to take my picture - stranger-pix always come out lousy, as if people don't know how to compose - and pretended to look at other points of interest for fear of attracting attention to my intentions.
When everyone walked away and I was alone, I decided to shoot. I set the camera up, turned, and clicked off a few images in rapid succession. When I was done, I put my camera away, looking surreptitiously around to ensure no one saw. I silently apologized to the still-sleeping form, hoping he wouldn't feel animosity toward me if he knew, hoping he would know that I'd try to poignantly and sensitively relate the tone of this tiny moment in time.

I don't know whether or not I succeeded - and I still can't rid myself of the feeling that I have somehow violated this individual's life - but I felt I needed to at least try to tell a snippet of his story.

Your turn: What would you have done? Would you have taken your camera out or left it in its bag? Is the value of telling this story greater than the potential for morally injuring the subject of the photograph?

One more thing: I've uploaded the photostream from my trip. Click here to explore my Flickr companion site or simply pop into the sidebar and click on the More of carmizvi's photos link. If you'd like me to pull any of them - along with expanded stories - into the main blog, please let me know.


Unknown said...

Well, first I would have called my blog friend Margalit and told her I was in town and maybe we could meet for a drink or a chat or something....

Then I would not have taken the shot. I have sort of a hard and fast rule that I don't photograph people unless I have their permission. I don't know why, maybe it's that I would rather people not photograph me or my family without my permission and I think it goes both ways. But, since you did take the photo, I think it's valuable to show that in such a beautiful new park, there is such a tragedy called homelessness. Boston has been better about the homeless than most American cities I'm familiar with, but still, it's horrible.

And oh, call next time.

Karen said...

Interesting question. I probably wouldn't have taken the camera out, but I'm glad that you did. I'm never sure how to act/react in those situations. I think you did the right thing...because you're Carmi and because that's what you do.

Boston is an awesome town. I hope you had a chance to get out and perhaps have some of their fabulous Italian food.

Enjoy the rest of the weekend. Hi from Wisconsin! *waves*

Anonymous said...

I could populate a hundred photo albums of pictures of homelss people in my neighborhood alone. For every 50 feet of pavement you walk in any given direction, there are at least 5 people busking on the sidewalks or sleeping in doorways and kiosks.

Taking a picture of a homeless person, to me seems to polarize the issue. One says, we must bring light to the homeless situation, another will tell you that it is an invasion of someones privacy and without permission breaks a taboo rule.

My opinion is this, you take photos to tell a story, and I admire that. To only photograph the sublime and the beautiful, would do injustince to the little ones you bring stories back to. Would it not be also good to show them the other side of the story? Everyone has a story, this is the important issue. One can only speculate why that person was sleeping on a park bench and the severity of his situation.

I don't think there was harm in shooting that shot. But in all things I say "check your motives!"

I happen to find your shots of buildings and shadow on the glass and brick and even the airport shots interesting. Maybe you could tell us about your view of composition and why those shots interested you to take?

It's all good Carmi...


Sandy said...

Since I tend to photograph mainly for personal memory keeping, I also tend not to photograph people I don't know. That said, I do find myself sometimes thinking "Wow, now THAT would make an amazing photo." (Then again, I have set out to take photos of perfect strangers when I'm in Amish country. I've yet to get one worth having though.)

That said, I also think that sometimes there are stories in images that words will never do justice for. If the intent was a story - is it different than to write about this man? I'm not sure.

I think the image you've shared here walks the line. Your not completely betraying his anonymity because he's simply arms and legs around a a way he's the embodiment of a larger societial problem while being disemboied.

And for what it's worth, as a girl that has grown-up and continues to live at the shore, I can't agree more. There is something completely cathartic about the water. For me, I find the Ocean a greater cathedral than anything church edifice I've ever stepped foot in.

Maggie Lamarre said...

Carmi I second what Jeremy said. You wrote a beautiful story as always. I think by wiritng about it, you are making people aware such a great country that gives away 3 Billion to Israel to help relocate the people from the Gaza strips. Yet we have tons of homeless something is wrong with that picture!
We forgave 240 million from Germany, so far congress has spent 89 million dollars to establish Zip codes in Iraq why I ask.
Couldn't we use that moeny to establish shelters and work rehabilitation?
Sorry it's a sore subject with me
We must work to end poverty around the world.
Thanks for caring about this person.

Redneck Mommy said...

Carmi, what a wonderful blog. As a journalist myself, I would have pulled out my camera. In fact, in my case, I have pulled it out and photographed a homeless man in a bus shelter. I did not get his name, nor his permission. But the photo was beautiful, and it ran in a local gallery for weeks. Which brought attention to the homeless plight in our area. Perhaps the ends did not justify the means, but my intentions were true. As long as you are sensitive and use your common sense, I think pulling out the camera occasionally to highlight all aspects of society, can benefit us all.

Good Kharma Bunny said...

Hi Carmi, Michelle sent me, your pictures/blog are beautiful.
I know exactly what you mean about the calming influence of the water. Just looking at your photo gave me a moment of calm.
In terms of the homeless chap, you taking the photo and talking about it, makes us all take a moment and consider our situation, and realise how lucky we are. I think you did the right thing.
Although if I had seen this picture in my area of the UK I would have thought the person wasnt homeless, I would have thought he'd had a good night and should be sleeping it off at home.
It's strange how one photo could mean so many things.
AL x

Jean-Luc Picard said...

Good pictures are meant to bring home messages. They may not always be good ones, but they illustrate a point. The homeless man's picture is excellent, and makes us think.

Michele sent me here.

Anonymous said...

I doubt I would have taken my camera out of the bag, purely because I've got no photographic skill and wouldn't have granted the situation the overall respect it have caught that respect and contrast between the beauty and the tragedy of where you were. It's a very moving photograph.

cmhl said...

you're not showing his face, I think you are fine. he would not be recognizable. morally, I think you're fine.

great pictures!

Linda said...

Carmi - I would have taken the picture...just as you did. The world is not pretty, we are often led to photograph only the happy and not the sad.

We look away from the grime and dirt, the homeless, the wild and crazy in search of the perfect. Your photographer's instinct was dead-on for this shot. It does tell a speaks thousands of words without a sound.

You know - I was at Oktoberfest in Munich this fall - I photographed the epitome of what you see there...a drunken man, passed out by the toilets. I was not, by any means, the only person who did this. It speaks of the nature of Oktoberfest.

Plumkrazzee said...

I probably wouldn't have taken it, but I am so glad there are people like you to take them! Pictures are your thing, you NEED to be taking shots like this. The world would never see the stark realities of life if no one ever took a risk in what they photographed. Keep shootin'.

Anonymous said...

I think it all depends on the subject matter itself. You were able to take this shot without revealing the man's face, thus protecting his right to privacy. Homeless or not, he still has the same rights as all of us. :)

Anonymous said...

I take pictures of homeless people alot of the time........
I have many in my photostream at flickr

I never show their faces.. that is my way of handling the fact that they deserve their privacy......

great Images

Goodbye Mes Amis said...

I probably would have done as you did.
I think that the act of photographing is always violent and imposing (hence the language, "shooting" etc). However, as a photographer, I have a love for photography and I respect it's place in my understanding of the world. Sometimes I choose to keep my camera in the bag, and sometimes I choose to "shoot" my subject. So, in my opinion, there is no easy answer to your question.
Here from Michele's.

Goodbye Mes Amis said...

Carmi, I always enjoy your posts so much, I just wanted to let you know that I'm adding you to my blogroll of blog peeps.

Anonymous said...

I would not have taken the picture, but I'm glad you did. I always want to take pictures of strangers but I never follow through, unless it's a case where I can make it look like I am really shooting something else--a landscape perhaps.

I miss Boston. My parents are selling their house there, and I'm very sad about it.

utenzi said...

Michele sent me back, Carmi.

Come on, Carmi. You're a journalist. That feelings stuff is for amateurs. Geeze!

As long as the fellow is alseep so you're not embarrassing him, and you don't show a face--what's the harm? And in a sociological sense you're helping him--sorta--by exposing the plight of the homeless.

On the other hand, that might be a picture of you, taken with a timer, just to allow yourself to ask this question of us. LOL That reminds me of the situation with "the tear" in the movie Broadcast News where journalistic integrity was also an issue.

Anonymous said...

I find that picture hilarious. At least the guy has a comfy place to sleep.

Anonymous said...

I would have shot it respectively avoiding his face, which wasn't showing anyways. I think it speaks to an interesting juxtipostion of tourist shots and some sad reality mixed. Seems the man is okay with it.

Of course my camera sounds a little easier to be discreet with than yours.

keda said...

i felt like goodkharmabunny that he was just sleeping off a heavy night! people with perfectly good homes often sleep in parks in the uk obviously..... and his white shoes look ever so clean.

however, i would have taken the shot too. but this is something i've been worrying about lately. i post many pictures of my children, and although they are happy about it at the moment, i do wonder if in the future they might be angry.

food for thought.

beautiful post as always. water is such a good antidepressant and soother. the bosphorous is the best therapist i've met. i love the reflection picture in the post below too.

here via michele's today but you are always a fave!

rob said...

Always take the shot. ALWAYS.

I do understand and appreciate the dilemma but, as well you know, to not follow your creative instincts or spark an honorable narrative is a crime far worse than the possible invasion of privacy.

As the old cliche goes, it's better to ask for forgiveness than beg for permission.

Besides...that's just a great photo. I would have e-kicked your ass if you didn't take it.

rob said...

And your shutter speed is amazing. What kind of camera are you rocking there?

carmilevy said...

Hi Rob. Surprisingly, I'm shooting with a Kodak EasyShare C330. It's a basic 4MP point-and-shoot, but it has a great lens, enough modes on it that I can approximate some semblance of shutter speed/aperture control, and a really good macro lens.

I keep it as my standby camera in my camera bag - the "big" camera is a blessedly ancient Nikon F-801s SLR. Yup, film-based. I'm looking for a DSLR body (either D50 or D70s) to replace it in the bag...the lenses and other accessories would carry forward.

Somehow, though, there's something elemental and cool about using a basic camera to get great pictures. Ansel Adams did some of his best work with a Kodak Brownie camera, so it's almost a testament to the history of photography that I continue to shoot with the basics.

Weird, isn't it?

Lazy Daisy said...

The photo of the homeless man doesn't show his face so as such he is not reconizable. The shot inhances your naration without violating his privacy.

Karen said...

Back again. I think it was OK to take the photo. You did it in a tasteful way, if that's possible. Isn't that what photojournalists win awards for?

Here again from Michele's....