The Ethic of Reciprocity or Back to Sunday School.

The Ethic of Reciprocity or Back to Sunday School.
Seeking charity outside the mosque. Srinagar, Kashmir, India.

Seeking charity outside the mosque. Srinagar, Kashmir, India.

There is a rather lengthy and lively debate going on over at David DuChemin’s blog on “Bruce Gilden – Artist or Thug?” Gilden, as you will see if you view the video linked HERE, uses a very intrusive style of photographing people. His style and his images are almost a polar opposite of mine. He of course is a Magnum photographer and I am not. It seems many folks feel that his style is justified if he gets a great image. I am afraid I don’t buy that. There is an integrity issue here. Startling, scaring and being intrusive is just not what I am about, and I will go out on a limb and say no photographer should be about that. OK, I know that was a blanket statement. Here is another blanket statement; I don’t think any human being should be intrusive. I am sure there are exceptions, though I can’t think of any right now. So what’s the integrity issue? Basically it comes down to the age old question, does the “end justify the means”. I don’t think so. This really is a world view question. What drives you at your core. Your ambitions? The good of others? Your faith? What is it?

In the discussion someone quoted Sebastiao Salgado saying, “If you take a picture of a human that does not make him noble, there is no reason to take this picture.” My first reaction to this was, “Dang, I wish I had said that!”. But then, after reading it over several times, I am not sure I buy it completely. Someone else wrote, “Is it our job to make a bad person noble?”  This just makes us into a PR machine.”  Good point. But I love the sentiment of Salgado’s statement. The core of what I think what Salgado is saying is, “There is no reason to take a photograph of a person with the intent of demeaning them or humiliating them.” The images shot by Gilden and others of his ilk are often images that show no compassion, no care or any consideration for the subject or for others. It is motivated by a selfish need to prove themselves or simply to make money off of others. I don’t like it. Gilden is just a paparazzi for the common man. Just as irritating and ruining the reputation and goodwill of anyone that follows after a him.

This is bigger than just Gilden – This is at the core of who we are and what we do. We all have seen photographers’ web pages that show images of deformed people living on the streets in India. I don’t have any problem shooting a person with some physical malady or a beggar on the streets (see above), my question, is why are these photos taken in the first place? What is the story the photographer is trying to tell? If I shoot a person with some gross deformity, I do it to show their humanity or to show unaware viewers their life or, possibly, a larger story, but not to portray these people as some sort of sideshow freak. If you take time to understand the people you are photographing, and you have any kind of compassion in your soul, you would never want to knowingly create an image that is demeaning or hurtful. Now, what if you got to know that person and they are angry and ugly? Fine. As I said before, I agree that our job is not to be PR agents. Show people as they are, but you don’t have to humiliate them. I guess it boils down to a Sunday School lesson some of us learned when we were five years old, remember the “Golden Rule”? “Treat others the way you would want to be treated.” Maybe it’s time we go back to Sunday School.

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  1. wilsonian

    I have gone back to that post and comments a few times now, and one of the comments notes that Gilden documents shock. I think that’s true. He manufactures and documents shock. But you know, that gets old quick. How many images of manufactured shock might one want to see?

    If he intends to photograph people (whether noble or ignoble) he misses it by a mile.

  2. pcb

    He’s got some good stuff… seems to me much of what he is trying to do is get in there before his subjects (characters) react.

    Breaking the “personal space” barrier was always my biggest struggle… photography is invasive, whether we like it or not. Sure, some of us try to make it as polite of an invasion as possible, but who are we kidding? Shoot first, apologize later.

  3. Matt Brandon

    Erin – I think he likes those images that make people out to be bafoons. Several things he does to help this along, he shoots so close (and for some reason he is proud of this fact)that he gets strange distorted angles and lines and this gives people a comedic look. He also uses that surprise factor and shoves the camera in folks faces to get those looks of astonishment or fear. I don’t mind his images, some are really nice. I just am really bothered by his technique and how disrespectful it is to his subject. complete disregard.

    Patrick – I think you are right, street photography is at the heart invasive. But he makes it worse rather than better. It is the difference between surgery with a sharp scalpel and a rusty butcher knife. Again, this boils down to core values, what is important, your image first then the people or people first and then your image. I have seen your work and my guess is you care about your subject.

  4. pcb

    Matt… good scalpel point… and yes, he makes it worse, not better. I agree, the people over the picture, but I don’t always follow my own rule… I often keep shooting after they say “no”, or (better idea) hang around until they say “yes”.

    I’d go further and say that ALL documentary photography is invasive… from macro shots of your teeth at the dentist, picture stories of subjects that take days – weeks – months to complete, to the most delicate and sensitive shooting scenarios: hospitals, churches and funerals. Our presence with a camera, by it’s very nature, changes things. The goal is to visit long enough so that the camera becomes invisible… not only do the pictures become better, but the relationships we build with the people we photograph become closer… friendships happen… and that is cool…. cheers.

  5. Chase

    To call myself an amateur photographer would be a compliment. I cannot enter this discussion as a craftsman, only as one who appreciates the art. However, I have travelled some with professionals and observed them as they work. I have seen them photograph people who were happy to have them around and tell important stories with their pictures. In my estimation, both the photographs an artist shoots, and the manner in which he or she shoots them, speak quite a bit aobut the artist’s world view

  6. David duChemin

    Invasive yes, unkind no. Hey, even a conversation or a look can be invasive in some way, the question is: can we do so in a way that is kind and respectful? I think so. Great article Matt. And great comments all. I think this dialogue is critical.

  7. Gavin Gough

    As always, you have a considered and reasonable response, Matt. Personally, I think Gilden’s “work” is uninteresting and his approach woeful. It’s another case of the “Emperor’s new clothes” and of those who make the most noise getting the most attention. It’s really not necessary to behave like an oafish thug to make interesting and engaging work and, thankfully, there’s plenty of examples of work made by photographers who understand the simple principle of respect. Gilden’s a loud-mouthed, boorish, buffoon. But you said it nicer 🙂

    • Matt

      Gavin, you really shouldn’t hold back! Say what you mean! 🙂 Thanks for your kind words.


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