Lisa Henderson, Access and Consent in Public Photography

(Image Ethics, pp 91-107) I read this article as part of my last module, when I looked at access and agency. Henderson points out that the strategies of consent employed by photographers are in fact mostly concerned with gaining access for sufficient time to obtain the images required, which is really only consent to having one’s photo taken; explaining how those images will subsequently be used is not always part of the strategy.

“While photographers recognize that a subject’s uncertainty about the use of a picture is often the source of interactional tension, they are for the most part sufficiently confident about the harmlessness of their photographing (to subjects) or its importance (to themselves, or to “public information”) and sufficiently interested in carrying on doing it that consent is not so much to be reckoned with among subjects as dispensed with.” (p 92)

Henderson has raised a very good point here – the confidence with which a photographer takes images and the reasons underlying that confidence. Working as a street photographer demands confidence and an unwavering belief that you have every right to be on the streets taking photographs of whatever and whoever you please. Having seen videos of different professional photographers at work, it appears that there are two main strategies – taking the image as quickly as possible so that the subjects don’t notice or have time to react (McCurry), or building up a very rapid and brief rapport with subjects (Parr). The only other alternative would be to shoot from the hip or from greater distance using telephoto equipment. I have also found that the larger the equipment, the more people are put off; somehow if you are being photographed by a small point and shoot camera you feel less threatened.

“The rule of thumb is to offer up only as detailed an explanation of one’s conduct as might be required to sustain access, in some cases for moments, in others for months. There is an effective distinction between consent to take and consent to use, and the second issue, consent to use, is typically not part of the strategy during the encounter.” (p 92)

This brings us right back to Wiseman’s predicament, where consent to access was not the same as consent to display at will. In some ways, this whole question has made me approach this project in a very different way, where some of my subjects are actually being encouraged to be the authors of their own film.

“the cultural issue is the individual’s right not to be stared at or examined, and between strangers in public places, a glance, a look, or a penetration of the eyes may constitute a violation of this territory, or, in more familiar terms, an invasion of privacy.” (p 93)

Which may result in aggressive or abusive reaction; indeed, holding eye contact for too long is perceived as a threat, but I have noticed that the length of time that is considered too long varies from culture to culture.

“a camera may reduce the threat of the stare by identifying its proprietor as a photographer, with a mission to look and a right to be there in the first place — for example, as a tourist or a representative of the media” (p 93)

To a certain extent, on the other hand, the camera itself may be seen as the threat, since it is able to record and store information about the events and the persons involved.

Henderson discusses how a photographer’s familiarity with a setting can assist in assuming behaviours that would be perceived as normal or unthreatening, which goes some way to explaining why some photographers prefer to work among groups with whom they have some affiliation. She also speaks about the way in which photographers feel more at ease when there are other photographers present photographing the same subject – safety in numbers (p 96).

Touching on the issue of apparent differences between the photographer and subjects, Henderson makes the observation that:

“a strong sense of tolerance or intolerance upon entry into segregated territory is apparent to the newcomer whose race or economic status is different from the established community’s. This is particularly true when he or she arrives as a mechanically equipped observer, prepared to leave with recorded images that probably don’t reflect the community’s sense of itself and which, most likely, its members will never see.” (p 98)

I think this is always a challenge, and there is often the idea that the foreign photographer is there to expose the ‘exotic’ to his fellow countrymen, or to somehow get rich by exhibiting the poverty or abjection of others.

Henderson speaks about the strategies adopted for entry into a particular situation or community, through official permission, invitation or a contact person, which allows entry and then subsequent legitimate status – although she does make the mistake of assuming that the photographer won’t have to explain himself from subject to subject once he is there (p 99). I have found this is often the case, and tend to do it anyway, since it avoids what she touches on next, which is sustaining access once it has been granted. If certain members of a community object to the photographer being there, it can jeopardize the entire project, or at least place severe restriction on it, regardless of who has given initial consent. It is also clear that the photographer should know when to stop – reading the signs and body language of people is essential here (p 100).

Speaking of open, uncontrolled situations:

“Where the stakes are high and the risks great, photographers keep moving, exposing just a frame or two in any one spot. In this way they’re able to minimize the duration of each encounter and thus the
duration of their focused attention on potentially hostile subjects. However, most photographers also want to avoid appearing sneaky or suspicious. They carry cameras where they can be seen or use wide lenses that often require them to be close to their subjects. They effectively engage in what Goffman has called the “overdetermination of normalcy” (1971:256), declaring their intentions to a degree that won’t be interpreted as covert or suspect.”
(p 100-101)

Reading this I thought immediately of Winogrand and his prowling approach, which to my mind borders on stalking. The following description is closer to the approach I personally use: “photographers let subjects see the camera at some point then wait for a sign of their approval. This may be a nod or smile; or it is simply inferred from the absence of overt disapproval.” (p 101) although, I think it is going a little too far to suggest that the absence of overt disapproval is equivalent to approval (this sounds rather like the approach Wiseman took, and in his situation I think it is applicable since he had been given overall permission from the governor, regarding street photography I don’t think the argument holds).

In the event of resistance, photographers quickly decide whether or not the picture is worth engaging in more than simply taking the picture, in what Henderson terms ‘remedial work’ (actually a phrase she borrows from Erving Goffman). This is most commonly talk – “explanation, elaboration, justification, flattery, and trivialization, each or all brought to bear depending on the photographer’s sense of why the subject resisted in the first place” (p 102) and as she points out, these can often be stories invented to avoid any lengthy explanations. On the other hand, if permission is still refused even after such remedial work, photographers do not usually persist: “Though photographers on the run often shoot despite a mild frown or left-to-right nod of the head, those who fail to get permission after an elaborated attempt rarely take the picture.” (p 103) Is this always true? I’m not sure if reporters and paparazzi really care too much about not persisting after permission has been refused!

The bottom line is then that there is a practical emphasis on getting the picture, since “you can decide not to publish, but you can never publish what you didn’t take“; questions of ethics are left to the publisher. Henderson also claims that model release forms are more a way of covering the legal interests of the photographer than “ensuring the rights and concerns of subjects are respected” (p 104). Regardless whether a particular situation is negative in any way, the subjects are denied the possibility of presenting themselves in the way they might wish to be seen. As such, the relationship between photographers and subjects is “essentially exploitative“, and existing privacy laws (as I have already established) are not designed to protect the public except in cases of invasion of privacy. People with more wealth and power may be able to influence the production of photographs, or even bring action against photographers or publishers who they see as having breached their privacy, but as Henderson points out: “this doesn’t help the less-monied, less powerful person whose objections to being photographed are dismissed by the photographer working on assignment, or the person who might not object until some unanticipated consequence occurs after the picture is published.” (p 105)

Again, reading Henderson’s essay doesn’t so much inform my practice as reassure me that the approach I have taken is the best one – to establish rapport with my subjects, engage them in dialogue, allow them to select which images are included and which not, and not to use any images that they are not completely happy with being made public.

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