Please dare to see —Debates on Monday #22
“To photograph strangers without their permission is strange,” acknowledges avid street photographer Eric Kim at the start of his book 31 Days to Overcome the Fear of Shooting Street Photography. One of the biggest problems in the field, he says, is getting over over the “initial fear of taking photos of strangers in public”, a problem his book is intended to address.
Beyoncé and Jay Z came to Iceland earlier this winter. Since it was in Icelandic only, you may not have noticed that a viral campaign, informal but no less vigorous for that, was started on social media, urging the public not to photograph the couple. “Let them travel here in peace”, was the message. “Let’s show them that Iceland is still a place where celebrities can enjoy their privacy”, let’s not be so small-minded as to harass them with our cameras, just because they’re famous, and so on. Had the couple asked not to be photographed, of course, this would have been a matter of decency. However, they did not, so it isn’t. What is it then?
Your first thought might be that the sentiment behind the campaign is a form of racism, the same perhaps as that underlying Icelandic authorites’ request that the US military establishment keep African-American soldiers away from its cold war-base in Keflavík (which was condoned in light of Iceland’s “special situation”). In this case, however, such an assumption would probably be mistaken. When Bob Dylan played Laugardalshöll, Reykjavík, in 1990, he reportedly bicycled his way through a blizzard, from the city center to the concert hall. That potentially beautiful photograph, however, does not exist. Nor does, for that matter, any photo of Dylan in the country, except then in some very private collection.
In my late teens, an event of astronomical proportions took place: Damon Albarn, Blur leader, songwriter and singer, started frequenting Reykjavík, expressing his delight at its nightlife and easygoing atmosphere. Albarn even bought a share in Kaffibarinn, or so the story goes. In my world, this clash of my all-to-real angst-ridden quotidian reality, and the non-real stratosphere of otherworldly nonchalant coolness, simply didn’t register. I was never a regular at Kaffibarinn, but I sometimes dared enter if accompanied and encouraged by my cooler friends. One night, as we sat there drinking beers and being real, one of them said: there’s Damon Albarn —oh, and Jarvis Cocker is with him —leader, singer and songwriter of Pulp, for those of you who weren’t around in the 90s. I looked up and I couldn’t see them. I believed my friend, but it became a pure article of faith: the improbability of them coinciding with me in time and space got the better of my senses. Everything blurred out, no pun intended, until my central nervous system had successfully eliminated their presence, and the night could go on as normal.
I don’t know if this is a common tendency. In any case, I don’t remember ever seeing a photograph of Damon Albarn or Jarvis Cocker casually strolling around Reykjavík. Not even Björk, for that matter. Of course there are publicity photos —photographs commissioned by the star, for his or her own purposes. And photos commissioned by news media for the sake of their common interest. Photos meant to make everyone look good. Eventually, Beyonce and Jay Z published their own Instagram photo essay of the trip to Iceland. They looked good: helicopter, champagne, Blue Lagoon and all.
Gossip medium Séð og heyrt once printed a snapshot of local folk, punk and rock legend Bubbi Morthens on their front page. This was ten years ago. Bubbi was smoking a cigarette, while driving, and the headline read: Bubbi fallen. Bubbi sued the paper. On the face of it, the lawsuit was not about the photograph but about the headline, which some, allegedly, could have misread as referring to the musician’s drug habit in earlier days, rather than to the cigarette that he was actually smoking in the accompanying photograph. Bubbi won the case, and the paper was ordained to pay penalty and damages for infringing his privacy. Whereas the musician had expressed anger at the purportedly misleading headline, the alleged infringement of privacy seems to rather apply to the photograph itself.
Don’t get me wrong: I understand Bubbi. I absolutely sympathise with the desire to keep your private matters private. What I find curious, however, is that as far as I recall —I may very well be mistaken— but as far as I recall this is the only case of Icelandic media, in my lifetime, running a photograph of a celebrity taken without the subject’s awareness and explicit permission. As if street photography can only be an act of spite, unlawful at that.
In a competitive world, obsessed with images, a photograph taken and published with the subject’s awareness and permission is not so much documentation as marketing. What happened to street photography, the idea that using a camera involves a fundamental openness to whatever might enter its aperture?
Interviewed by Sveinn Birkir Björnsson for this paper under the headline “Obituary: News Photography”, back in 2007, photographer Þorvaldur Örn Kristmundsson declared news photography in Iceland dead: “the only thing left is to write the obituary.” Why is it, he asked “that newspapers today are overflowing with photos of recipe dishes and quilts, giant photos, while the news photos that really matter are cut down?” Interviewed elsewhere, around the same time, Þorvaldur claimed that according to today’s guidelines, at Life magazine “no one would have photographed the Beatles, but only members of their audience, and then had to take down their names. … Robert Capa would never have gone with the invasion of Normandy, because he would have been stuck in a supermarket photographing a jar.”
In a paper published in 2008, anthropologist Sigurjón Baldur Hafsteinsson all but verified the death certificate, speculating that at least one of the reasons behind the disappearance of news photography might be the neglect involved in presuming that maximising profits will automatically lead to best practices in any field. An anonymous photographer, one of Sigurjón’s correspondents laimed that news photography had started flourishing in the 1960s, when printed media started upscaling photos, but suffered neglect again since around 1990. While digital technologies have made photography ubiquitous, that also means that most news media prefer low-budget work from amateurs who happen to be present at any incident or event, to more thoroughly visually investigative photo-journalism. Professionals must compete with that and, says one, even good photographers “have started takings shitty photos”.
Street photography and news photography is not exactly the same, but they share a sense of openness to the world’s revelations. We could call it life photography —there may already be a better word out there, though.
Two apparent exceptions can be perceived to the current absence of these fields, two motives that look somewhat like street photography, are permitted and hence recirculate endlessly. One is poor people, in circumstances that reveal their poverty, such as standing in line waiting for food donations. Repeatedly revealing the fact of that line is probably seen as social commentary. Usually, however, the photographers take care to shoot the people in the back or otherwise obscure their faces. This may be essential for the sake of respect and the subjects’ dignity. It means, however, that the resulting images fail to impress, fail to capture anything more than this single piece of information, that there is poverty. How does anyone subjectivise that situation? In that place, does a person’s face and posture reveal contempt, regret, anger, disgust, boredom, stoicism, relief, cynicism, resignation? We do not know.
How about when twenty of the country’s wealthiest citizens come together to discuss offshore tax-free options to keep their capital? Upon entering or leaving the restaurant, do their faces disclose pleasure? Tranquility? Or disgust? Anger? Boredom? In this case, we don’t even know how they dress for the occasion —we don’t even see their backs, if they hunch or stand tall. In terms of social class, it seems easier to point a lens downwards than upwards. You may partially photograph poverty.
The other exception, the other motive that somewhat looks like street photography, is politicians on their way in and out of administrative buildings: ministers entering and leaving their ministry, members of Alþingi entering and leaving Alþingi’s premises and so on. The space between a minister’s car and the doorstep of a top administrative building is perhaps the most over-exposed in the country, photographed more wildly than any mountain or waterfall, which can only mean one thing: it is already a stage. Ministers may sometimes look uncomfortable walking these ten meters, under attentive eyes, but hardly surprised.
Neither of these exceptions, stages poverty and staged administration fulfils the criteria for street photography: neither “the aim of creating images at a decisive or poignant moment”, nor “capturing people in public places, often with a focus on emotions displayed, thereby also recording people’s history from an emotional point of view”.
Where is our people’s history from an emotional point of view? Where are our poignant moments?
Social media is definitely one of the usual suspects, brim-full as it is of photography. The same law, however, applies even more rigorously in that sphere: you reveal yourself to those you want, in a context which you chose. Friends see each other having fun. Fans see artists and celebrities doing cool stuff —or otherwise sprinkling a little star-dust over otherwise uncool things. You can be seen wearing ugly clothes, of course, but only if you chose to do so, for the sake of fun, or, in case of a celeb, to reveal that “after all” you are only human. You are already your own trademark, and as in other spheres of marketing, violating the sovereignty of your image is considered bad etiquette, at best. To put it in quasi-Benjaminian terms: behind every reproduced image of a cat being cute, or of you having the greatest brunch ever, is a failed case of actual photography.
An outright ban of representative imagery, aniconism, is mainly considered a facet of monotheist religion. It would be mistaken to apply this notion directly to the current lack of street photography: most motives are certainly permitted. You may photograph anyone and anything, so long as it is with the involved persons’ full consent, presumably a matter of respect.
However apparently related, the unspoken lack of street photography on the one hand, and the loud, explicit call not to photograph celebrities visiting the country on the other, may have different roots. The anti-Beyonce and Jay Z photo call was not qualified in any way, it was not about getting their permission. You simply should not take their picture at all. The plea, at times, sounded somewhat desperate, as if more was at stake than you could ever fathom.
Confronted with that quasi-religious attitude, the question arises: what is it, in this case, that Icelandic society considers so holy as to lie beyond representation: is it the celebrities, who would be profaned if pictured in relation to the country’s quotidian sceneries, or is it the country and its landscapes, threatened to be profaned by being visually related to mere earthly pop-stars?
In any case, it all appears to me like one more proof, as if more was needed, that the country, inasmuch as a country can be subjectivised, does not yet fully believe that it shares a world with other peoples and other places. That mentally, notwithstanding the relentless tourist boom or the country’s internationally recognised music scene, Iceland remains an uncontested island.
What do pop-stars and money have in common? A lot of things, of course, but what I have in mind right now is the easiness with which they traverse the world. While the absurdity of nation-states and their borders remain in place, the circulation of money and pop-culture sift through cracks in the walls.
Being a star is even, in a way, being money, or in any case a central bank. Whether factually true or folktale, the anecdote of Picasso’s cheques comes to mind: that when dining at a restaurant, the artist paid with a check. On the reverse side of the cheque, then, he drew a picture, with his signature, knowing that this backside drawing would always be more valuable than the frontside and the cheque would hence probably remain eternally uncashed.
Whereas popstars can be photographed, however, actual money cannot. Money can be represented as cash, but money itself is neither bills nor coins. Money is totally ephemeral, a registration in a collection of books. A verified printout of a bank account may be the closest you get to photographing a person’s capital. Many people’s gut reaction is probably that doing that is also, in a similar way to street photography, somewhat obscene: what about their privacy?
Anyone who would have snapped a good photo of Jay Z and Beyonce would have gained a little capital, at least in some circles. Perhaps that’s the problem with photography: the way in which it entails a little primitive accumulation. A little power-grabbing. You could call it reclaiming your visual periphery. Reclaiming your retina. And then some.
Farmers, the ruling class in Iceland for centuries, prohibited the establishment of towns by the seaside, where people might have lived from fishing, since that would have upset the power relations between land-owners and the rest of the public. By and large, the public obeyed that stipulation and kept doing its duty at Maggie’s farm.
Today, owners of any significant property, as well as representatives of authority, rely, to a greater or less extent, on cameras for surveillance. Whether in public space or on private premises, you may expect that your picture is being taken, to be saved, and watched if occasion arises. Seeing is valuable, not merely on its own, but in pure monetary terms. Just as people once accepted leading their lives as subordinates to farmers, dreading the thought of taking power into their hands, we might hypothesise that the current fear of photography is subservient: your own dread of being able to create value from just about nothing.
The real power of photography was its power to shatter anything staged. A camera looks backstage. From the outset, of course there have been forces which would rather make it enhance the staging itself, the spectacles we live under: political spectacles, market spectacles, family spectacles, the spectacle of class and manners.
Am I over-universalising if I claim we all share some reluctance to see and to be seen? A fright, even? And that the real danger is that we might all find it a bit more cozy without the threatening potential reach of photographic vision?
Disclosing fragments of reality through a camera is not an act of spite. It can be an act of some courage, though. Sometimes courage can be expressed, and cultivated, through something as apparently trivial as pointing a camera at another person, a celebrity or not. If you want to. If not doing so feels like you’re holding back. Like Eric Kim says: “If you do it openly, honestly, and smile a lot—people won’t feel any negativity towards you. Sure you are going to get some people who look at you funny or some people who ask you to delete the photo—but that’s pretty much the worst that ever happens.”
Next time when Bob Dylan comes to town, please take a picture of him on that bicycle, and make it somehow available. I would probably put it on my wall.