There was a short but provactive post recently on Street Reverb:
“Candid street photography and military aerial reconnaissance may seem to have little in common, but they’re both examples of how the camera has made us more distant from each other and from the world around us, according to Sandra Phillips of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, who is the exhibition’s curator.”
If you’re in London between now and October 3rd be sure to check out Tate Modern’s Exposed – Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera. I’m not sure many street photographers would agree with the quote above. I know many people that would maintain that working on the street brings them closer to the world around them.
I think it would be equally incorrect to say either that photographing on the street brings one closer to the world or distances one from the world.
What the introduction of a camera into any situation does do is to place something between the photographer and the subject. The question is, what is the nature of that something. Is it a wall or a window or a door, or something else entirely?
In some of my work, I have made reference to a line from Simone Weil — “every separation is a connection.” That part of Weil’s theology is to do with how she reconciles her spirituality with the manifest absence of god from the realm of human affairs, and more personally, it is to do with how she understands the physical and psychological suffering she experienced in life. Absence or distance is not simply a negation of presence or immediacy; it establishes a relationship between the separated parties, and that relationship must be considered as such.
While I don’t share Weil’s religious outlook, I think this particular observation is richly applicable to many other contexts, and particularly to relationships between human beings. If we sit down at a table, does the table separate us or bring us together? It has the power to do either, or both simultaneously. A camera has the same power.
Unless the subject flees, the camera does not introduce distance between myself and the subject. What it does is to record the distance that already existed and to infuse that distance with meaning. That meaning is not predefined merely by the fact that it comes by way of the camera; its content depends on the intent with which I wield the camera and also on the way in which the subject and, later, viewers perceive that intent. It may make friends and allies, or it may make enemies and victims, and in many cases it may be a non-trivial task to ascertain which is the case.