Sunday, September 5, 2010

An Urban Myth

My first encounter with the anti-photography militia was in 1988, in London. I was in the tube and saw a kid with a very expressive face. I took my camera out of my bag and started shooting a few pictures of him. Before I could get a good one, a lady got up from her seat, walked toward me and told me that in that country it was forbidden to take pictures of people without their permission. Being a young man in a foreign country, I just put my camera back in my bag and let that great photograph go to the “lost opportunities” bin. She smiled a sick, victorious smile and went back to her seat. I ruminated over that meeting and concocted a dozen very witty responses I could have given her. I was really surprised because I had just visited an exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum of British photographer Chris Killip and couldn’t imagine how such a great photographer could work in such a hostile environment. Obviously he didn’t ask permission to take all his photographs, or they could never be so expressive. But the most annoying thing about this incident was the use of the words “this country” which logically meant that she knew I was a foreigner, and that her objection to my photography had much more to do with this fact than with my photographing people without permission.

For many years I didn’t have any other problems, especially in places like Salvador, where people actually invite you into their houses if they see you with a camera. Things only changed when I moved to the USA where the urban myth that people cannot be photographed in public without their permission seems to be widespread. The first time a new encounter happened was when I was at a festival photographing kids playing in the moonwalk ride (we call it pula-pula in Brazil). A father approached me and asked why I was taking pictures of his daughter. All those witty answers that I had been collecting over the years raced through my mind, but all I could say was, “It is Art.” The father was somehow disconcerted by this answer, especially when I gave him my card which says “Fine Art Photography.”  What could he do? Tell me that he hates Art and that he doesn't give shit about my work? He threw me an angry face and went away. I moved to the other side of the ride and kept shooting before another parent asked me the same questions. That ruined my mood and I left the ride and went to the stage where the musicians seemed not to mind being photographed. Don’t get me wrong; I am a father too and I understand the concern of the parents. Just the other day I read about a serial killer who photographed all his victims before killing them. Parents should be cautious, and I am too, but they should also be careful before accusing (or implying) photographers are pedophiles.

I am a foreigner here too, and even though in Madison I can’t say I have had many encounters with racism, this attitude of people asking me to delete their pictures or questioning my right to taking them put me off for a while, and that is when I started the work I call Urbania. At least people riding their cars won’t stop to question you. Now I am finding ways to fool the militia, photographing people when they don’t see me as intruding on their privacy. And I also bring some material to show them that, contrary to their beliefs, it is totally legal to photograph people in public places without their permission. This pamphlet, for example, seems to make all the points that I need. Now, I know that there is a hard balance between people’s privacy and my rights to photograph them, but if such a law that people cannot be photographed without their permission were passed, then the Art that we call Street Photography would be totally dead. I don’t know how many people would miss my pictures, but are we ready to do without the works of Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank?

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