chantal stone photography: the blog

March 29, 2007

Interpretations

Filed under: Articles,Photographers/Artists,Photography — chantal @ 1:41 pm

I recently interviewed photographer Jonathan Greenwald. We discussed his street photography, particularly his images of the homeless in NYC and Toronto. You can read the article here……the comments following are of particular interest. Evidently most people disagreed with Jonathan’s method of photographing the homeless anonymously. They seem to feel that his choice to not interact with his subject is in a way objectifying. Read the comments…you’ll see what I mean. There were a few who actually liked his images, there was even a compliment to my interviewing/writing skills (thanks!!)…but for the most part there was criticism or my titling the article “…Conscientious Street Photographer”.

I avoided making any comments myself, people are entitled to their opinions, not everyone is going to like or agree with what you say, or write, or photograph. And I tend to think that any discussion at all is a good thing. But since the article first appeared on T.O.P. over the weekend…it seems the issue is still not dead. And I feel like my own blog is the perfect venue to voice my own thoughts, opinions, and observations.

First of all, the article initially appeared on Blogcritics Magazine back in February. What I find most interesting is how differently the article was received. There are a few things to consider here: BC readership is much different from T.O.P. readership….BC has a more diverse readership, not just photographers and photo-enthusiasts, etc. Also, the title is different. On BC, the title is “…NYC Street Photographer” (editor choice, not mine). However I don’t really think the change in title would have made any difference in the BC-reader reaction. I think photographers tend to be more critical of each other, than non-photographers are of art and photography.

But why the harsh critique in the first place? There are those who believe that photographing the homeless is a cliche, or is over-done. But tell me, what isn’t? Browse through any photo portfolio or photoblog an you’re bound to see one of the following: flower macros, sunsets/sunrises, dewdrops on leaves, children laughing/playing, a solemn-faced woman next to window under natural light, a crowd of people preoccupied with something with a singular face looking directly at the camera…and I even read somewhere (and tell me this isn’t true) that at one point every photographer will shoot a lone tree in a field.

Doesn’t it stand a reason that photographers will often photograph the same subjects over and over again. We do it because these things are interesting, they are visually stimulating. So what’s up with calling a certain subject a cliche? What subject matter, at one point or other, isn’t??

Now to the issue of Jonathan’s choice not to interact with his subject matter. There are a couple of comments in the T.O.P. thread that defend it very nicely, so I won’t bother here. The fact remains that it is his choice. And really, isn’t the beauty of street photography the spontaneity of it? You can’t really achieve that by talking to every person you shoot. Maybe Jonathan’s critics are looking at his method from the wrong standpoint. If you look at Jonathan’s body of work in the context of photojournalism, then his objective viewpoint is perfectly acceptable—even necessary. Perhaps Jonathan’s critics were coming from a more ‘street photography as art’ point of view, which is fine, but one is no more right or wrong than the other.

I read a lot of books, magazines and blogs about photography, all the time. And there are so many opinions out there, it can get kind of crazy at times. Everyone is a critic, everyone has an opinion…but guess what…no one has the correct opinion. Any opinion is correct.

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5 Comments »

  1. Love it! Now, a word from one of the critics! I can honestly say that my answer would have been different had I seen the article last week; however, as I had just come from a workshop that supported interactions with people, I was coming from that point of view. I had such a wonderful experience in talking to both homeless people as well as vacationers.

    I understand the advantage of capturing candid moments; however, I also like the ability to do an interaction with the subject. It’s personal. It’s a choice. I hope that I wasn’t judgmental, though perhaps I was. It was not my intent. My intent was to say that he probably would have had some great moments and stories to tell if he paused a moment to visit with the human being on the other side of sign/cup/can/bench.

    I plan to do a bit of street/park photography, but from a different point of view. I see lots of street photography blogs, but rare is it to see that photographer capture a very personal moment. I think that I’ll start honing my skills in that direction. I want to sit with people and get their stories. Regarding the homeless, I want to be respectful, aware, and on equal footing. I’m not better, I’m just in a better situation, I guess.

    Anyway, I enjoyed your commentary. Keep up the good work, Chantal!

    Comment by paul — March 29, 2007 @ 2:11 pm | Reply

  2. Chantal,

    I made a very terrible attempt at trying to defend my style in the comments, when all the while I should have realized that everyone is a critic.

    In the end, I photograph people on the street; how or why should not be criticised; instead criticism should be left to the content of the images.

    The one common theme seemed to be interaction. I am not interacting with my subjects so I am objectifying or exploiting them. I completely disagree, instead feel I am capturing people naturally and most importantly, letting the viewer come up with their own story about the subject. I can photograph a homeless person and title it “Sam” with a story about how Sam fought in the war, came home to a wife that was no longer there, and found himself on the street. Or, I can post a photo os Sam and let people wonder why this individual is on the street. What is their story? To me, that is the most interesting. I have no intention of writing stories about people. I do have every intention of photographing people, homeless or not, and challenging viewers to figure it out themselves. “What is that guy on the stairs thinking about?” “What is that women thinking about as she stares up at the sky?” Homeless or not, people are very interesting subjects and it doesn’t take any interaction to create a wonderful story.

    Perhaps my next pblog will be titled “Interaction….A meet and greet with Jonathan Greenwald.” =)

    For now, I have no desire of telling people’s stories for them; I’ll leave it to the photos.

    Comment by Jonathan Greenwald — March 29, 2007 @ 2:54 pm | Reply

  3. That’s what I love about photography, and Art in general…everything is left to the viewers’ interpretation. Although, intent should never be criticized…at least imo.

    Comment by Chantal — March 29, 2007 @ 10:49 pm | Reply

  4. The comments were very interesting, indeed!

    When I knew that your (Chantal’s) article on my site would be posted on TOP, I checked out all of the comments on the previous articles, and saw that there were almost always some negative comments about the photographers discussed.

    That’s ok… art is by nature a creative process that offers differing points of view, and that’s what separates it from something that is strictly a scientific pursuit.

    I value photographs that interact with the subject, and those that don’t. Certainly, there are many styles of journalism and documentaries where it is important that interaction does NOT exist, or the action of the subject could be altered. (As any sociologist would state.)

    As a side note, David Pogue (NY Times) had a good post a while back about blog commenting, and how it brings out people’s harsher side.

    Discussion and criticism are a good thing, when folks debate issues and don’t make interpretations about people’s character from an article; even one written well. It’s legitimate to discuss the pros and cons of interaction, but any conjecture beyond that, based upon one article, is silliness.

    I enjoyed both the article and Jonathan’s pictures.

    Comment by Andy — March 30, 2007 @ 8:44 am | Reply

  5. The mechanics of generating particular images are sometimes best left unsaid as they can sometimes invalidate the image to people who want to imagine a particular narrative in terms of the photographers presence……

    A most tragic case of this was the South African photojournalist Kevin Carter who won the Pulitzer prize for a terrible image of a seemingly dying child left alone with a vulture waiting to move in…….. its a shocking image….. Kevin Carter had risked his life continually to bring images of the tragedies of Africa ……. he and his friends in the ‘Bang Bang Club’ brought powerful images of conflict and suffering and deserved their high professional regard…. they did not operate differently from most photojournalists….. but most others would give a much hipper spiel….. Kevin would speak honestly and specifically about shooting the picture then moving on…… it would have been wiser to talk about his heartbreak at the situation in general…… he received masses of hate mail from people in their armchairs in Europe and the US (as if they had done more to protect the child or highlight the plight of starving people)….. weeks after picking up the award and still in mourning for his best friend Ken Osterbrook (who died in my arms having been shot in a township in SA)…… Kevin committed suicide…..
    http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5241442
    This is an extreme case but illustrates graphically just how others have no business telling photographers how to make their pictures…..as if they knew better how to shoot pictures in these extreme circumstance…..

    I have shot aware and unaware images of homeless people…… I know and use Jonathan’s techniques mixed with the opposite approaches of extreme friendliness and openness winning contact and permission…… I read Jonathan’s original comments in the article and thought they were far too honest…… not that what he was actually doing is not proper in anyway…… it’s just asking for hate mail…

    Cheers Jez XXX

    Comment by jezblog — April 7, 2007 @ 12:19 am | Reply


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