On ethics and things not going quite as we thought
Steve McCurry is coming to Tenerife! That’s exceptionally good news for us people living in a small island in the middle of nowhere, where this kind of events is not that usual.
Two things in my head right now: McCurry’s visit and the portraits I have to have done by the end of this week. The mix of these two thoughts took me straight to Steve’s page to have a look at his portraits. And while doing so, I couldn’t stop my mind from going back, once again, to the question of to what extend do we, as photographers, have the right to photograph people, and later perhaps, show them in web pages, books, postcards, etc, without their explicit consent.
I am sure we could all agree that McCurry’s photos are so beautiful that one would almost pay to be in one of them but, his work is an exception and, in any case, the people he portraits, most likely, don’t know who he is and have no idea where their images will end up.
For quite some time I thought I had convinced myself that there is nothing wrong on taking people’s pictures in the streets. I put all my attention, interest and even love in each of those images so… what can there be wrong with that? All clear in my head and heart until I bumped into the story behind “The Let Us Now Praise Famous Men”.
In 1936, writer James Agee and photographer Walker Evans were sent by Fortune magazine to document rural poverty in the U.S. South during the Great Depression. They did so through a detailed portrait of three sharecroppers families. Fortune ended up not running the story but it was later published as a book. It didn’t have much success at the time of publication but, some 30 years later it had become a classic of American literature, a recommended reading across U.S. education system. The families depicted in the book, who never knew exactly what the pictures were for, became what they never wanted to be: an icon of Depression-Era misery and poverty.
In 1989, Dale Maharidge and Michael Williamson replicated Agee and Evan’s work, this time portraying the life of the children in the original photos. The new book, called “And Their Children After Them” revealed the anger many members of the family felt about the intrusion of Agee and Evan’s in their anonymous lives. The authors received the Pulitzer prize for that book, giving even more prominence to the story.
In 2005, Fortune, once again, sent journalists to visit the descendants of these three families in order to do a story for its 75th anniversary issue. And once again, the families show their resentment towards those who entered their lives to show them to the world not only as poor but also as ignorant people.
As one of the descendants, Phil Burrough, said:
“They were cast in a light that they couldn’t do any better, that they were doomed, ignorant. How would you feel if somebody cast your folks, your parents, or your grandparents in that light?”
I cannot really tell any of the people in my photos where they will in years time because such destiny is not always in my hands; so… how can I promise them that it will all be ok if I cannot be sure myself? Ciara Lemming’s work is a good nowadays example of how things can go very unexpectedly wrong even having the subject’s consent.