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October 27, 2013 / Aware of the Void

It Was an Unpleasant Feeling

Invasion of  Privacy
A very strange thing happened during the week. I was contacted on my Instagram account and asked to remove this photo. I was surprised by the request as I didn’t think there was anything particularly offensive or intrusive about it. At best it is a bit quirky and for me that was the appeal. I have been reading a lot about street photography and digesting thousands of images to try and get it clear in my head how it works and what makes an interesting image.

I was looking at the contact sheets of Henri Cartier-Bresson and the whole idea of “street” began to fall into place. It appeared that it was never one decisive moment but more about waiting for the elements to pull together to give the key shot. With this idea now clear in my head I started to look closer at the streets around me, trying to pick the interesting shot but then waiting for serendipity to intervene and give me my photo. I was between meetings in the city and sat down on a window ledge to makes some notes, have a coffee and just generally drink in the vibe of a Dublin street on Monday afternoon.

My mind was on my work and I happened to look up from my notebook to see a bright red mannequin drift past me about half a meter off the ground. Only on a closer inspection did I discover that it was being carried. I grinned and thought to myself that it was exactly that sort of scene that re-occurs in street photography. Since I was working I had no camera with me so I just let it go. Left with nothing but my memories and a sense of a missed opportunity I returned to my note book.

A few minutes later the mannequin was back wearing a different dress. It turns out that there was a clothes shop nearby and they were using the natural light and plain wall as a backdrop to get shots of the clothes. As they set-up the shot I spotted an image that I liked and with the learning process in mind I took a few snaps with my phone. I often use my phone as a sketch book for future ideas, some of these sketches end up on Instagram because it is mildly more interesting than posting pictures of every meal I eat. I tend to tag or keyword my shots so I can find them again and this is how the person in the shot found it on my stream.

I was asked to remove the photo and at first thought the person was joking, other than the fact that they identified themselves I think that the identity of the person pictured would be indecipherable. I did not remove the post from my stream mostly because I was curious. She emailed me and I really was surprised by the response to my posting. From her point of view it was an unsolicited photograph. I took my shot at a time when she was feeling awkward and uncomfortable and was unhappy knowing that somebody had observed their actions. They viewed my photo as an invasion of their privacy and to be honest until they wrote this in an email to me it had never even occurred to me that I might have made someone feel bad or awkward.

Over the last couple of years I have documented on this site my love of street portraits of strangers. I still do a lot of this type of picture but those shots are very different. I walk right up the the person and ask them if I can take their picture. I do this in a polite manner and can explain why I want to do it. I have never had a bad experience and I can still remember the reasoning of anyone that said no. I have also documented my struggles with street photography. I finally felt that I was making progress with my recent revelation and this has been a bit of a set back.

In her closing words of her email it was suggested that I should think about establishing some kind of code of conduct where my street photography is concerned. The funny thing is I think I already have this. I never wrote it down and it changes on an adhoc basis and it sometimes changes after the photo has been taken because I am unhappy with something that I have done.
I was happy enough with the picture to post it to my Instagram, it was a quirky snapshot of a vaguely interesting scene. The fact they you cannot identify the person in the picture was a big part of the appeal, it made the picture more absurd and reduced the subjects to pure objects in the background of the city of Dublin.

I removed the picture from Instagram and I think that is the end of the matter. It has soured me to street photography once again. Not because of this one specific incident but because of the thought that every time I take an interesting candid picture of a random person on the street I might be upsetting someone. The whole episode had an unpleasant feeling.

19 Comments

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  1. Moni / Oct 27 2013 4:29 pm

    Well, it’s still a cool shot. It sucks that the experience made you feel the way that it did.

    • Aware of the Void / Oct 28 2013 11:05 am

      Thanks Moni, I am already over it – time to concentrate on things that I understand and enjoy.

  2. stevenjwillard / Oct 27 2013 4:46 pm

    I think you’re being overly sensitive. This is wonderful image and deserves to be seen. I’m glade you shared it with us.

    • Aware of the Void / Oct 28 2013 11:07 am

      Thanks for your support Steven, I have just told my wife that someone thinks I’m too sensitive….she is still laughing..

  3. sibokk / Oct 27 2013 5:28 pm

    I agree, I think you’re maybe being overly sensitive about this photo, very few people could identify the person from it.

    Yes, you were contacted directly which I can imagine was surprising and weird and although we don’t know the tone or content of the message you still have to put the image and the intent into perspective. She wasn’t naked, she wasn’t honestly in a vulnerable position, despite saying so, and she didn’t look like an idiot or stupid.

    I understand your sentiment completely, we never know what’s going on in people’s minds when on a public street and when we photograph the photograph rarely tells the absolute truth.

    Please don’t be put off by this, it’s a shame she doesn’t realise that no harm could come from this image but people are people and we all have our issues and worries. As long as your intentions are positive and genuine that’s what matters (I think).

    • Aware of the Void / Oct 28 2013 11:11 am

      Thanks Simon, you make street photography seem so effortless on your blog/flickr that I am in awe of your results. This has not really but me off but has cemented some feelings that I have been having about “street” for a while. I paraphrased a lot of the mail in my post and pretty much tried to get her feelings across.

  4. frauinga / Oct 27 2013 7:12 pm

    I really like this shot, and I honestly can’t understand why the woman was so upset. But I can also understand you got a bad feeling from receiving an angry email from her. Hope it doesn’t stop you from exploring street photography!

    • Aware of the Void / Oct 28 2013 11:15 am

      Thanks Inge, I was suprised by her reaction alright but what can you do, you can’t control how other people feel..I intend to carry on trying to get my head around the whole concept….but concentrate on my portraits for a while

  5. Carissa / Oct 27 2013 11:01 pm

    People can be strange. I had a friend ask me to remove photograph from Facebook that she was in. I think she saw it in someone else’s photo albums, or something. Here’s the kicker, the photo has been up for something like four years and she just now realized she’s in it? Lots of other people are in it as well AND it was a public event (a grand opening of our non-profit’s office) in which she was interviewed by news reporters which was broadcast on the evening news., but as much as I hated pulling it, I did. Ticked me off though. The problem was hers, not mine. Oh well.

    I guess my point is, I’m sorry you felt you needed to pull the photo. Frankly, I don’t think you did. She was in no way recognizable, and you are not responsible for how she was feeling about herself that day. It is an interesting photo. Don’t let one person sour you on something you obviously love to do.

    • Aware of the Void / Oct 28 2013 11:19 am

      Thanks Carissa, that is not the first time I read something like that – I think now that cameras are everywhere it is pretty difficult to do anything without someone taking a shot and posting it somewhere specifically a public event. Four years is a long time to go back…not sure how I feel about myself from 4 years ago..

  6. cameraetrusca / Oct 28 2013 8:48 am

    nowt so queer as folk. Don’t let it get to you and keep up the good work.

    • Aware of the Void / Oct 28 2013 11:19 am

      Thanks for stopping by Nicholas. I plan to keep on keeping on..

  7. aafke / Feb 7 2014 2:05 pm

    absolutely (un-)identified as being a class piece of street photography

  8. christian harkness / Feb 8 2014 9:26 pm

    Hi Brendan, many thanks for posting this and writing it up so well. I think you have identified the difference between ‘dyed in the wool’ street photographers and some of us more sensitive types. I think this kind of thing either bothers you or not. If it leaves a sour taste in your mouth I think that it is a clear warning that that type of photography is not for you. I ran into a somewhat similar situation with one of the people I have photographed over the years – and it definitely got to me.
    The problem is that my passion really is in portrait/people photography and I don’t want to give it up, but I also don’t want to be put in the kind of situation where my work is first approved and then disapproved by the subject. It just leaves me a bit devastated. Right or wrong has very little to do with it. It is just I have ‘thin’ skin when it comes to that, and I don’t think I can fix that.

    • Aware of the Void / Feb 10 2014 12:09 pm

      Weirdly Christian, I had removed this post (well made it private) because I had still not fully collected my thoughts on this.
      I went out twice recently once with the notion of just taking portraits of strangers, fully engaging with the people and chatting with them. I really enjoyed the day out.
      The second day out was with a group of street photographers – I done this to try and better understand the appeal. I want to fully understand “street” before I give up on it. To me this would be the same as dismissing “landscape photography” without even trying it.

      I will never give up on people – I like them too much but this Ninja style snipering is not for me.
      Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts on this.

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