If You See Something
In 2016, I took a one-day photography workshop in New York titled Field Guide II: The Street. The class met the instructor in Brooklyn, but we traveled as a group to Chinatown in Manhattan. I was ambivalent about the location, feeling both protective of Chinatown and complicit in treating it like an exotic backdrop for tourists. My mother, who is Taiwanese, had worked in Chinatown garment factories when I was a child, and the neighborhood remains a cultural center. Not long after the class, my mother caught me taking a photograph in the neighborhood. “Huh,” she said. “You’re one of those people.” She laughed and explained that more than once, while grocery shopping, she’s had to wait until a photographer moved out of the way before selecting her produce. That’s not to say I don’t think people should photograph Chinatown. Seeing Bud Glick’s black-and-white image of workers amid heaps of half-made garments brings back the scent of fabric, chipping paint, haw flakes, and over-steeped tea in reused instant-coffee jars that I remember from visits to my mother’s factory. Ambivalence isn’t always bad; it just means you’re thinking.
The day of the workshop, walking through the familiar-to-me Chinatown streets, I grew bolder and raised my camera to photograph a boy, lip curled, scarfing down cake; a man with a sharp shape-up, blowing louche cigarette smoke; and an elderly gambler bundled in a red parka, hood up, mouth resolute, fingers tapping a stone chess table, declaring her bet. Our instructor advised us to keep our camera straps wrapped around our wrists to protect our gear. Some subjects ignored us, others mugged for the camera, and a few raised their hands to block their faces. An older, no-nonsense-
looking woman walked toward me, and I raised my camera to my eye. She swatted at my camera and shouted in an unfamiliar-to-me Chinese dialect; I jumped away and she continued walking. I was shaken but also exhilarated by the encounter. I had been working on a novel about a photographer, and this was the real-life experience I craved. It also underscored my misgivings about photographing in public in general, and in Chinatown specifically, and taught me the risks and responsibilities of street photography. I would return, but my approach and intent would evolve.
I am loath to declare any subject off-limits for artists, even if they do not share identity markers with their subjects, because an artist should be free to create, just as an audience is free to critique—in theory, that’s the balance. I run a photography club at a public high school in Brooklyn, and I teach students to avoid clichés, stereotypes, and exploitation, because good art also avoids those things. We also discuss ethics and personal safety. By law, photographers are allowed to photograph strangers in public, without consent, if it’s not for commercial purposes (art and photojournalism are exempted). Street photography ethics are looser than those for photojournalists, and are policed by the community, if they are enforced at all.
Susan Sontag writes, in her essay “In Plato’s Cave,” that “there is something predatory in the act of taking a picture. To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed.” There will always be tension between a photographer’s desire and their subject’s autonomy. Instead of drawing up a list of unethical subjects, I teach my students to ask themselves these questions before and after making a photograph: Why this subject? Whom is this for? What are the power dynamics? Can I answer my good-faith critics? Questions like these help us decide whether a photograph is worth publishing. Rather than leading to self-censorship, they are meant to fine-tune our discernment. The questions lead to better work, though they aren’t always answerable.
These questions around ethics came to mind this spring, when my students and I watched a short documentary on Daniel Arnold, who came to prominence on Instagram with his iPhone street photography. Students usually haven’t heard of the artists I introduce them to, but this time a student said, “Oh, I follow him on Instagram.” As of the writing of this piece, Arnold has more than 280,000 followers. I admire his work and his genuine, exuberant love of New York City. In the early days of the pandemic, I bought a small print of his, a photograph taken at Coney Island showing a woman bending down to adjust her sandal strap while an animatronic Death ogles her ass. That afternoon in the classroom, we watched Daniel Arnold’s New York, a three-minute film produced by Vogue in 2017, in which we see the photographer at work: using flash, sticking his lens in people’s faces, shooting from the hip—in other words, photographing in a manner that is brash, stealthy, and at times outright aggressive. Part of this can be attributed to how the video was edited, and to the propulsive musical score, but I felt uneasy using this as a model for my students. He exudes an entitlement to people’s bodies and personal space that my students, mostly girls of color, wouldn’t be so readily granted. It seemed irresponsible to present his methods without discussing the implications for both photographer and subject.
The next video we watched featured the New York street photographer Jamel Shabazz, best known for his celebratory vernacular photography from the 1980s onward, in books like A Time before Crack. I was struck by the difference in his approach. The bulk of the video shows Shabazz photographing people of color at Coney Island—women wearing headscarves, men wearing bold-print shirts. I pointed out that, contrary to Arnold’s approach, which resembles more of a hit-and-run, albeit an unusually energetic and artful one, Shabazz speaks to his subjects before and after he photographs them, and he even goes so far as to show them sample images. In speaking about his intentions toward his subjects, Shabazz uses the word dignity more than once.
In June 2021, I walked around Chrystie Street in Manhattan, on the border between Chinatown and the Lower East Side, and entered Sara D. Roosevelt Park. I had once photographed a man inside the park wielding two swords, but the images didn’t come out, and since then I’ve been checking in, hoping to see something equally compelling. I noticed a group of people sitting on plastic stools in front of easels or with sketchpads at hand. Their subject was a middle-aged Black woman who held a folding fan. Comparing her with the artists at her feet, I thought she might be homeless. By law, if she is in a public space, anyone can photograph her, but what if she doesn’t have a home to retreat to for privacy? This is one of several reasons I generally avoid photographing the homeless. This scene intrigued me, however, because her cooperation implied her consent, so I shot a few frames. Even if the people drawing her were exploiting her situation, including them in the photograph implicated them and gave a fuller picture of her experience than if I had zoomed in and concentrated on her as the subject, the way the artists had done; this was my intent.
In interviews, Arnold has defended his practice. When asked why he doesn’t ask his subjects’ permission, Arnold explained, “Because they start thinking, they start lying. I think the implication is that they don’t expect to be watched, which in public is an unreasonable expectation.” Instead, he prefers, or is often required, to have that conversation after the fact. “It starts out very hostile,” he told The Creative Independent in 2017. “[But] usually, it defuses pretty quickly.” When asked why he didn’t often photograph in Greenpoint, where he then lived, Arnold said it was because of “personal taste. . . . People that look like me are less interesting.” (He now lives in Chinatown.) An unexamined entitlement to a stranger’s images becomes more fraught when the gaze is trained on the other. “Telling the stories in which we are complicit outsiders has to be done with imagination and skepticism,” argues writer and photographer Teju Cole in The New York Times Magazine. “It might require us not to give up our freedom, but to prioritize justice over freedom.” In other words, it’s not enough to simply follow our muse—we must interrogate our relation to it as well.
What many photographers crave is surprise or difference, but what sets people apart is often what marginalizes them. I ask photographers to interrogate their motives in seeking out difference. Why take a class of primarily non-Asian students to Chinatown? When confronted with the prevalence of stereotypical images, Shabazz describes feeling a “sense of social responsibility to capture the culture within our community.” Understanding how your photographs are situated in place and time will make you a more thoughtful photographer without sacrificing the mystery that’s inherent in the best art.
Some years ago, I was encouraged to submit work to an open call at the Asian Arts Initiative with the theme of mixed-race identity, as I am Taiwanese and Irish. Two of my photographs were selected: one was of my then three-year-old niece gazing at herself in a pocket mirror. My sister initially congratulated me, but later said she was upset that I had not sought her permission before submitting the photograph. Consent had not crossed my mind. Initially, I bristled because I don’t consider consent when I write fiction, but this was different. There was no way to disguise my niece’s identity in that photograph unless I drastically altered it. I apologized to my sister, and she agreed to let the photograph run in the exhibit. I’ve since decided not to publish photographs of my niece until she’s old enough to give her own consent. My relationship with her, and considerations for her privacy, outweigh my desire to make art. I haven’t always chosen a relationship over art, but that’s the kind of negotiation artists make with the people in their lives, whether they do so consciously or subconsciously.
Photography, with the exception of still lifes and landscapes, is a form that requires human collaboration, but as a culture we revere the auteur, the lone genius. Street photographers are nothing without their subjects, but it’s often an unbalanced, sometimes unwilling collaboration. Which is why I found this comment by Arnold, in another interview, ironic: “Being contextualized and compared and rated can be a sickening lens for your own experience.” He was being asked to consider his place in photography at large, but his words could also describe the experience of being photographed. When photographers display their work, whether in a gallery or on an Instagram grid, they are asking for attention to be paid to their subject. Social media platforms tend to reward sensationalist spectacles rather than quiet moments of dignity. They invite voyeurism rather than collaboration and community.
In June 2021, Arnold used Instagram to post a carousel of photographs, some of which had been featured in a New York Times piece titled “This Is the Summer the Youth Own New York.” Two images in the set were screenshots from an anonymized user, stating, “hey man you posted me in your newest post smoking a joint and you never asked me if you could post that or even take it so do you think you could take me out of the post.” The photos were soon removed, and in the comments people argued over the legality and ethics of street photography. Arnold himself wrote, “I took the picture down, erased their names and gave you a forum to discuss it and talk shit on me. Cry me a raver [sic].” Farther down in the comments, photographer Ed Templeton, who also has more than 230,000 followers, wrote, “Don’t do things in public you don’t want to be public.” Being denied consent for a photograph is frustrating, but, I’m sorry, that’s cop logic. Marijuana might be legal in New York, but for the most part, it remains an at-will employment state, meaning this person’s boss, if they saw the photo and didn’t like it, could fire them.
Now that law enforcement uses facial-recognition programs, mining surveillance-camera footage and public photography from social media platforms to identify protesters and others suspected of criminality, the question of whether photographers are unwittingly aiding and abetting the state’s surveillance of its citizens must be given serious consideration.
Someone with a large platform has more to answer for because their power and influence are greater. Scale and influence matter. It would be one thing if a public figure like Eric Adams demanded that a photograph of himself smoking a joint be taken down—his power and influence make many of his actions newsworthy—but the same can’t be said of our Washington Square Park smoker. Removing Adams’s photograph would be an act of capitulation, while removing the park-goer’s photograph would be one of compassion. To Arnold’s credit, even if he was being passive-aggressive in posting the subject’s request, he granted them anonymity and used his platform for discussion.
With freedom of speech comes criticism. You can’t expect one without the other. Criticism is healthy if it doesn’t morph into harassment; it helps you think through your project and come out a stronger artist.
Working in a similar vein as Arnold, the photographer Sinna Nasseri presents another instructive case study of the tensions between subject, photographer, and audience. On May 13, 2021, Nasseri posted a carousel of photographs on Instagram, the first image a copy of The New York Times featuring his photo essay on unusual COVID-19 vaccination sites, the second a photograph of a man reading that same newspaper. In the comments, someone criticized Nasseri for not covering the Free Palestine rallies in New York City. The gist of the comment, as Nasseri described it to me, was “So sad to see you posting your regular life or karaoke bros singing while important things are happening.” Nasseri posted a screenshot of this comment to his Instagram story and asked his followers what they thought. Some felt that because of the difference in their audiences—Nasseri has over thirty-six thousand followers and his critic has a private account with fewer than three hundred followers—he was setting them up for harassment. Nasseri told me he’d already intended to cover the Free Palestine rallies and counter-protests, and a few days later he posted photographs and videos from both, offering multiple perspectives. One video showed pro-Palestine protesters getting into a shouting match with streetside diners and throwing objects at them; another video showed a woman at a pro-Israel counter-rally suggesting that Israeli animals were more important than Palestinian people. Afterward, Free Palestine advocates asked him to remove the footage because they believed it did not show their cause in a positive light. He chose not to comply, because he didn’t want to be used as a propagandist.
When asked how responsive he felt he should be, Nasseri explained, “A lot of times I will want to make art and not have some sort of written code of ethics dictating what I can do, because I want the freedom to do it a little different than the way that it’s been done… But the main principle is always [to] show people what you see in a way that will provide some hope, or some way forward, or some illumination of what’s actually happening, but [that] also isn’t so straightforward that it’s photojournalism and you’ve already seen this before.”
Nasseri spent most of 2020 traveling the country, photographing Black Lives Matter protests, counter-protests, and political rallies. He visually reported for Time magazine and Vogue. It was Daniel Arnold who alerted Nasseri that a triptych of his photographs from the Maricopa County Elections Department, taken for Time, had been presented by impeachment managers while arguing their case in Trump’s second trial. This is one of those cases where the life span of a photograph is unpredictable, and its newsworthiness transcends concerns like consent.
Regarding consent, Nasseri said, “I think it’s impossible to set some kind of standard for that. Everything is subjective, and everyone has to come into it on their own. I come into my work with good intentions, and my whole point is to understand people, and to show people with a kernel of truth, and that’s always my intention.”
I teach students that as they progress as photographers, they will learn what their obsessions are and hopefully challenge themselves—I mean this in the technical, emotional, and intellectual sense. With practice, it becomes easier to take a stranger’s photograph and improve your technique. But more important, if you’re to grow as an artist, you will hone your intention while leaving room for surprise. Instead of a rigid, definitive list of unethical subjects—if you’re willing to take the risks and suffer criticism and consequences of your work, weigh power dynamics, and extend respect and compassion to your subjects—the main question in any genre of photography becomes: Is this story worth telling? The answer is the artist’s statement. The question shouldn’t be taken lightly.