STREET PHOTOGRAPHY UNDER THREAT
By Wallace Chapman
First up, the style of photography I take usually means that I ask permission. Not always – sometimes it’s great to steal a shot or capture that unguarded moment. But others…that’s all they do. Like arguably New Zealand’s best street photographer, (actually, photographer full stop, yet for some reason isn’t mentioned amongst the likes of Ans Westra or Marti Friedlander, but should be) who has been snapping the street for 40 years. His name is Julian Ward. But public attitudes seem to be changing, and citizens are getting ropey about having their shot taken in public. I felt very sad when I read this on Julian’s site:
“ The other day I was stopped by the police (the first time in my life) while I was taking photographs in a public place. “Someone had complained I was looking sneaky with my little camera. Other photographers were Ok with their big professional cameras” – said the policeman.
Even after 40 years if I ever doubt what I’m doing I’ll go home and look at my library of street photographers. Cartier-Bresson for example immediately re-charges my batteries, and I’m a believer again.
Mr Plod was OK (“just doing my job”) when he saw my book, which I often carry around with me. But what has changed in our society? “
What HAS changed in our society? I think for some reason, lets not get into it here, it’s complicated, people are bedridden by fear, apprehension and mistrust. And combined with the fact that it’s no accident our nicknames are ‘kiwis.’ We are an extremely shy nation of people – nothing wrong with that. So two things to remember when you see a person with a camera. If it’s on the street people can take a picture of whatever the f* they’d like to take a picture of. Secondly, some of the great photos of the twentieth century would not have happened if people went up and asked. Think the couple kissing in the streets on V-day. Or Brassai’s incredible images of Paris nightclubs in the 1930’s.
It’s a trend happening overseas also. In Australia, a long time photographer of the Bondi beach area was almost arrested after taking a photo of a homeless person. Now he actually gets people to sign permission slips. If this continues we are in danger if losing that wonderful art (and it is an art) of capturing a city’s moments. And that, would be a shame. Julian Ward has given Wellington City a rich and diverse seam of sights and scenes of the area – it’s a local treasure. So, advice to budding photographers (and bjesus, there are many) – NEVER ASK PERMISSION.
By the way, that sneaky little camera Julian uses is a Leica M9. Around $10,000. For the body alone…not that it matters.