Saturday, July 29, 2017
Once I was walking past the elevators at the newspaper and one elevator was being repaired. The door was propped open, and two workmen were standing on top of the car, working on the cable. The only light was from a single bulb worklight.
It was a very 1930s tableau: the greasy cables, deep shadows, the two workmen, straining at a bolt or something. I had my phone halfway out. But they were four feet away. They'd see me taking a picture. It would have a certain zoo cage quality, the white collar guy snapping pix of the blue collar guys. I couldn't explain that I had a blog and wanted them to, oh, illustrate the eerie beauty of physical labor, the odd lighting and mechanics of the elevator shaft.
So I kept going. Or I asked them and they said "no," I honestly can't remember which.
There is responsibility toward a potential subject, and even though I am not a professional photographer—maybe especially because I am not a professional photographer—I try to be conscious of it.
Particularly when the parameters are set up ahead of time. When I visited the Vent Haven Museum in Ft. Mitchell, Kentucky, the curator said I could take photos, provided that I promised to get her permission before posting any specific shot. There are not only copyright considerations—some dummies are trademarked—but a few of their figurines are extreme racial caricatures: coal black dummies with huge red lips and white, popping eyes. She didn't want those images representing the museum.
Is that prudence? Cowardice? Would you respect that stipulation? I did.
Though I took pictures of the racist dolls. But never posted them. Why? Maybe because they were so alarming. Maybe because I thought someday the museum might close, circumstances might change, freeing me of my obligation.
They are a temptation though. I worry, when the subject of racism comes up, these dolls might be a perfect illustration. And as the years go by, the sense of obligation around the taking of the pictures slackens, while the photographs remain. How long do I keep my promise? Forever?
This sort of issue comes up more frequently than you would imagine. There is a bookstore on Milwaukee Avenue called Myopic books, and in the basement is a sign saying "No photographs." Near the sign, a wonderfully warped shelf, bowing under the weight of books. It would make a great photo. But I respected the sign and, besides, figured I could get the owner's permission.
I couldn't. She had this complicated story involving moviemakers who wanted to use her shop. I asked every time I went in, three or four times in several ways and the answer was no. She didn't want the free publicity. Eventually I stopped.
Why not just take the photo? Why give a sign authority over you? A sign isn't the law. It's just a request, a presumptuous demand. If the sign said, "Jump off cliff" would you do it? Why respect a sign at all?
A person is different. If a person is aware of me, I ask permission to take a picture. Usually they say yes. If they are not aware—say a man sleeping on a train—I might take it without seeking permission, though I'm not sure how the subject being unaware changes anything. I guess because I'm worried more about the social act of taking someone's photo without consulting them, as if they were an inanimate object, than about the result of publishing a photo that they might not have wanted taken in the first place. The expectation of privacy of a person out in public is very slim, or should be.
It's an interesting dilemma, and judgment is called for. For instance, the sign above is in the Dermestid Beetle Colony room at the Field Museum. ("Dermestid Beetle" is redundant, isn't it? Dermestids are beetles, of a particular flesh-eating variety. You expect more from a museum, though maybe that usage is an intensifier, a nod to the general public who wouldn't scan "dermestid" as meaning beetles or anything else).
I don't feel I'm violating the hospitality of the Field by posting the sign, because I'm not showing what they don't want seen—the bloody springbok skulls and desiccated bird bodies, being picked clean by the beetles. That's what the beetles are there for, to skeletonize animal specimens for later display. I feel it's squeamish of the Field to want to keep the process secret, but it's their party, and no doubt don't want the general public to worry there are danse macabre horrors awaiting behind every door.
I wonder if our being photographed all the time by anonymous security cameras will make us less reluctant about being photographed. Maybe it'll make us more reluctant, trying to push back in the few areas we can. It's an intriguing subject, and something about a "No photographs" sign raises suspicion—what are you afraid of? There is a pastry shop on Devon Avenue, Tahoora Sweets, that also displays a "No photographs" sign. I want to take the owner aside and say, "The food doesn't really look that good." Though I'm sure he has his reasons. My guess is he's trying to keep competitors from stealing his store design. The competitive world of East Indian bakeries on Devon Avenue—that seems like the subject for a novel.