On Staged Photos and Integrity

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Photo by Charlie Kirk, from his “Outliers” set.

This article was originally posted by Charlie Kirk on his Tumblr here. Make sure to follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

Charlie: A week or so ago, Brian Sokolowski posted on Facebook: “Is it me, or is there a whole lot of street-photography out there that’s set up and posed? No, it’s not me… there is. What’s the point of that? I mean if it’s set-up, that’s fine. But don’t try to pass it off as street-photography, because it’s not.”  I agreed with him and cited a few photos from the HCSP group that looked staged.  I’d like to expand upon my thoughts here.

Let me start by saying that, like Brian, I am not against staged photographs per se.  Jeff Wall is one of my favourite photographers, and I love the portraits of Gilden – who, I would argue, is the best “street photographer” alive today.  What I take objection to is deception which may or may not be a result of a loosening of the commonly held perception that street photography is candid.

Street photography is tough

Tokyo. Photo by Charlie Kirk
Photo by Charlie Kirk from his “Japanese Women are Beautiful” series.

Street photography is tough precisely because it involves elements that are outside of the photographer’s control.  You know what it’s like – if this had been there, had they only continued to make that gesture, had the clouds not covered the sun at that moment, then the picture would have been perfect.  For most, this is the joy of the game – the unpredictability of it, the frustrating challenge of attempting to capture that perfect arrangement, moment, light or feeling.  Street photography is about the joy of risks that come off.  Trying to see things quickly, looking at the foreground and the background at the same time, moving quickly to a scene without disturbing it.  All of this keeps us going.  Or it should.

But I also feel that there are some street photographers that want to take a short cut.  They are impatient.  They know a decent shot so well, that they will quite happily add an element here or there, ask their friend, son or daughter to move or do this or that or get a stranger to repeat what they were doing two seconds ago.  They make an OK picture into a better one by adding that that extra element of humanity, frame filling or quirkiness.  But does this matter?  Isn’t the end result the most important?  Respectively – yes and no.

Why does this bother me?

Photo by Charlie Kirk. From his "Istanbul - Initial impressions" series.
Photo by Charlie Kirk. From his “Istanbul – Initial impressions” series.

As a photographer I cannot disassociate an image from the process of its creation, as I am actively engaged in that process every day.  When I look at street photography, one of many things I care about is wanting to be in awe of the photographer’s skill.  How did they take this?  They must have been quick.  Did they really see all of this at once?  They must have had courage.  How on earth could they see this widely?  I admire the photographer for these skills.  So if it transpires that this “street photograph” is arranged, I feel let down.  I feel manipulated.  My time spent conjecturing on the process is wasted.  The photographer never had the skills I thought they had.  They had more than one chance.  Click – check the LCD – fail? – click again – check the LCD – poor positioning? – fail? – move the subject or wait for the background to come into place – click – check the LCD – shot works.  It’s a wrap.

Aside from these thoughts about process, a key aspect that is important to me is an image’s representation of a unique split second of time.  Something that genuinely happened, as of itself, and will never repeat itself.  But if this natural “moment” never in fact existed and was “created”, I feel let down again.  While creativity is something to be applauded, the creation of a moment generates a different emotional response in me as a viewer.  The moment was a fiction not a fact.

It is not only admiring a photographer’s skill, or reveling in the transitory that interests me in a candid photo.  It’s the mystery that the photo can engender.  Let’s take an example.  Say there is a picture of a solitary child – looking a bit lost and lonely, with some kind of interesting or dramatic background.  If this photo is represented as candid, my mind will wander.  I’ll wonder about why the child was there, connect emotionally with their loneliness, worry about what might have happened etc.  The photo will resonate with my feelings of sympathy as a human.  Now if it turns out that this child was related somehow to the photographer, I no longer feel this.  Instead I just think that’s a beautiful picture of so and so’s son or daughter.  The bottom line is that I don’t want to feel confused by a photograph – I should not be put in a position where I have to try to guess whether it is posed or not.  It gets in the way of my enjoyment.

Not admitting that a photo is staged shows a disrespect to the viewer and is a disservice to anyone that has stumbled or will stumble across a similar scene in the future.  It is an affront to those that are patient, lucky or quick enough to capture such moments candidly.

Street photography, composites and photojournalism

Photo by Charlie Kirk. From his "Violence around Gezi" series.
Photo by Charlie Kirk. From his “Violence around Gezi” series.

It’s also worth comparing street photography to composite photography and photojournalism.

I recall the discussion in street photography circles when Jan Meissner was allegedly not clear that her street photos were composites.  Street photographers on the whole do not regard composite works as street photography as the elements were not there at the same time – the photographer did not capture all of this in camera – rather they put it together afterwards.  Now if it were discovered that a street photographer had included composites in their portfolio, without admitting it, their reputation would take a battering – their skill and integrity would be questioned.  Why do we take such umbrage to composites (Fred Le Mauff said this was a type of intellectual dishonesty) and not to staged photos?

It’s the same with photojournalism.  With very few exceptions, most photojournalists take pictures that are candid – they do not direct or stage the scene – and if they were to do so, they would probably be ostracized – and might well be kicked out of their agency.  Their photos would become propaganda.  While a photo can never tell the truth, a photojournalist does at least aspire to it.  The key difference between photojournalism and street photography is that with street photography the lie can make the photo a great one, but I feel that the lie should be through framing rather than arranging or directing.  The lie should be an honest one – if you know what I mean. While it may be humbler and more everyday than traditional photojournalism, the issue is, to me, the same.  It’s about integrity.

So what should the photographer do? 

Photo by Charlie Kirk from his “Japanese Women are Beautiful” series.

I guess the next question then is what should the photographer do?  I am a firm advocate of getting the best image possible, and not missing opportunities.  As I said in the introduction, there is nothing wrong with staging per se, and I would support this.  Staging photos helps a photographer develop and express another side of themselves.  But what I would encourage photographers to do is make it clear, when the photograph looks like a candid one, that it is in fact staged.  Christos Kapatos recently did this withthis wonderful photo – I respect him for that.  I also believe that a photographer should at least reply to a question as to whether their picture is posed or directed rather than staying silent.

What I would not do, and what I fervently believe is wrong, is to submit a staged photo to a street photography competition or a group on the internet.

Is the erosion of the definition of Street Photography to blame?

Photo by Charlie Kirk from his “Japanese Women are Beautiful” series.

Some might argue that there is nothing wrong with submitting a staged photo to a street photography group if the admins of that group have a relaxed definition of the term.  Let’s use HCSP as an example.  But before we do so, I’d like to counter any arguments that HCSP is irrelevant.

HCSP matters because it is the largest group about street photography on the internet.  It has influence.  Virtually all street photographers that have started out in the last few years are aware of the group.  Many would say that a large part of their early photography education has come through looking at the photos in the pool and studying the threads.  Look at some of the past admins of the group and what they have since achieved.  Like it or not, the group has kudos.

So when HCSP adopts a loose definition of street or candid photography – citing Nick Turpin’s view that street photography is just photography or that it is an aesthetic, it simply encourages viewer confusion and flies in the face of the generally accepted view that street photography is candid, and something candid cannot be posed.  If the admins are comfortable with posed pictures being in the group, then they should at least change the description of the group from “A group dedicated to candid situations that momentarily reveal themselves amidst the mundane hustle and bustle of everyday life” to something like “Pictures we like”.

But such a change – which is actually what is happening now – would result in viewers never having an assurance that the photo they are looking at is candid – at least in the generally accepted meaning of the term.  Flickr photographers would be encouraged to stage photos in order to get the views, comments and likes that acceptance into the pool would inevitably bring – and most importantly, viewers would not be able to judge a photo on its merits.  They’d never be able to say – “wow – that guy was lucky to be there”, or “what great timing”.  They’d be in a constant state of confusion.

So – I would agree that this loosening of the definition is important – but it does not exonerate the photographer from responsibility.  They can’t simply come out with “well, the admins accepted it” when the group is currently described as one about candid moments.  While the admins themselves might even spot that the photo (or parts of it) are staged and still accept it into the pool, the photographer should think about the viewer more – most of whom would quite rightly assume that the photo was a candid one.


Photo by Charlie Kirk. From his “Japanese people are strange.”

So in conclusion, while this is certainly not the most important issue in street photography right now, it is one that I thought would be worth spending some time writing about.  Integrity is important in all walks of life, and I can’t see why street photography should be any different.  Perhaps I’m becoming more like xxx by the day…

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