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Recording the Pretty from high Moral Ground

“Hey, how dare you photograph a homeless person! And just to be artsy!”

How many times have you seen that catch-cry from high moral ground across the Internet in the last few years? I probably run across it somewhere or other every few weeks.

But it leaves a bad taste in my mouth because the only time I was ever called out that way happened to be a hit and run attack over a medium format film photograph I made of a middle-class Zombie Walk participant.

Homeless? How about finding out whether somebody is homeless BEFORE going on the assumption that photography is an opaque fishbowl of truth. Have a look around the urban environment (because this is mainly a street photographer issue)… it’s not that easy to pick homelessness out from the crowd. We can’t even say “We know it when we see it.” In reality, we don’t.

Photographers are generally referring to people who look mentally ill, unkempt or disfigured. The poor. The eccentric.

I do have several pictures of homeless people. My friend Ricky, for example, from the old days. His uncle used to run the Painter and Docker’s Union back in the day. At the time I shot a fast snapshot he’d recently returned to Tasmania after losing his house in Melbourne. He was homeless. But I’d challenge anybody to know that he was homeless. Homeless people don’t wear signs to say “Take my dignity now!”

As photographers we fall into some common ruts, too. One being that street photographers think like street photographers – perhaps they need to ask whether shooting documentary photography is an important part of getting society to see the misfortune and inequity out there? It all depends on the context and motivation of the photographer. Perhaps photojournalism is another legitimate motivation?

So the catch-cry reverberates around the Internet with photographers occasionally being outed “Hey, how dare you photograph a homeless person! And just to be artsy?” I can hear their soap boxes grating across the cold asphalt of that high moral ground.

Fit black and white template to issue, add to trendy consensus absorbed from forums and project onto other photographers’ work.

I’d reply that my biggest fear of all (in light of Stalin’s similar attempt to blot out the unwanted) is a world where photographers only record the pretty. From that same high moral ground. Leaving a legacy of photographic record in our time that omits a swathe of authentic urban culture as an undesirable and unsavoury side comment. One contiguous and homogeneous advertorial for a pack-driven consensus of the acceptable.

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About the Author

Steven Clark Steven Clark - the stand up guy on this site

My name is Steven Clark (aka nortypig) and I live in Southern Tasmania. I have an MBA (Specialisation) and a Bachelor of Computing from the University of Tasmania. I'm a photographer making pictures with film. A web developer for money. A business consultant for fun. A journalist on paper. Dreams of owning the World. Idea champion. Paradox. Life partner to Megan.

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