It Was an Unpleasant Feeling
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.