Treading on Thin Ice


The streets have given us people who have developed some very uncanny and genius ways of documentation. Some prefer to be direct, even brutal. Like Bruce Gilden, who unapologetically shoved his camera and flash into people’s faces. Some prefer dabbling into a little deception. Like Richard Koci Hernandez, whose earphones turn him into an unassuming and innocent wanderer on the street. And some others prefer to be secretive. Like Walker Evans, who made portraits of subway commuters, using a camera hidden behind his coat. As diverse as their approaches were, it was in this that they discovered their style and rhythm, making the scene solely theirs. Whether while doing so they crossed a line or stepped into someone’s private space, is subjective and hard to deduce. Regardless, it’s certainly a question that we need to ask ourselves, especially since most of us heedlessly point our cellphones in all kinds of directions.

Something that Anthony Burgess had said a while ago, reflects on this question. “To be left alone is the most precious thing one can ask of the modern world.” The gravity of his words stunned me for a moment. I was, am, a part, of the modern world that Burgess spoke of. I couldn’t help but wonder if I had robbed someone of their ‘alone space’.

When I am out shooting, there are certain situations that I will not photograph. Like, a scene unfolding inside someone’s home visible through their doorway, or when someone’s asleep, or an intimate moment shared between two lovers. I have in the past made pictures of such situations, and have felt very uneasy after. It felt like I was robbing them of some respite they received from the glaring eyes of the humdrum of everyday life. Although I do appreciate photographs of such situations, for me, it is a bridge that I prefer not crossing. I also wondered about my own reaction if I discovered someone photographing me. Would I be as open? Maybe… Maybe not.

So where do we draw the line? And how do we judge what is right or wrong? I don’t have any answers. But the discomfort that I spoke of earlier… maybe that’s where we need to start, and what each one of us need to be looking for… that unsettling rumble within that warns us to stop.

This article originally appeared in the February 2017 issue of Better Photography.