Ethics and aestheticsSeptember 5, 2016
A couple of posts ago I wrote about how I approached the issue of homelessness, by photographing anti-homeless spikes and other examples of ‘defensive architecture. These were evidence of how those in power tried to get rid of homeless people, rather than homelessness. I said I tended not to photograph homeless people themselves my rationale being that:
“I’m always conscious that I might be seeing them as a stock type rather than as an individual person. Any photograph I take will probably exploit more than help. You could of course take a picture where the identity of the person is hidden, but this risks doing even more to render them as a type not an individual.”
Yesterday I did take a picture of someone who was sleeping on the streets, and in many ways it was for the least legitimate reason – aesthetics.
I was actually photographing a cycling bag for a review, when I chanced upon this man asleep as you see him in the photograph. The unusual raised doorway (I assume some kind of loading bay) offered him a level of privacy (apart from prying photographers) and some protection from the cold and rain. But that didn’t occur to me at the time – to me it looked like a picture frame.
This was of course ascribing artistic sentiments to a social injustice, tempering what should have been a sense of moral outrage and making us think in terms of the those religious scenes where there is some supposed nobility in the plight of the poor.
The man in the picture was sound sleep – he looked almost serene – his beard and hair made him look Christ-like – which only added the crime of glamorising poverty as ‘ascetic’ to the crime of seeing a social evil in terms of aesthetics.
I doubt he was aware of me stopping my bike opposite him, taking four pictures and moving on. I had what I consider a ‘good’ picture, but one that is notable more for the ethical issues that documentary photographers have discussed, avoided or been not been aware of for over a century.
An extreme example of this was that of George Rodgers. He founded Magnum, the legendary photo agency. It was run as a cooperative and championed a concerned photojournalism with an ethical and social conscience, that was pursued with varying levels of commitment by its members. Rodgers himself had put his cameras down when he was photographing one of the Nazi concentration camps. He realised he was composing the piles of dead bodies into pleasing compositions as he would a still life.