This photo was taken in the very public space of Fountain Square on a Saturday morning. Now most people would stop to look at the painting. So I set up to point the camera at the painter. The zoom of the lens was wide enough to catch the passersby without my seeming to photograph them. I don’t think there’s an ethical issue here since I’m in the public arena. Because of where I’m standing many people would think there’s a possibility they were in the shot. So no lurking involved. Let me know if you disagree.
There’s an interesting history of the hidden camera in photography going back at least to the 1930s and possibly before. If any of you know of earlier examples, please let me know. In this blog post I want to discuss four examples and the ask the ethical questions involved.
Paul Strand (1890-1976) resorted to a right angle lens in some of his New York street photographs. In this non-copyrighted image from the internet Strand used his right angle lens to capture the blind woman. I don’t know if Strand asked her permission.
Walker Evans (1903-1975) illustrious photographer of the 1930s used a camera hidden under his coat to photograph New Yorkers in his subway series. Ben Shahn (1898-1969), famous for his New York City municipal mural paintings and photographs for the Farm Security Administration used a camera rigged with a right angle lens so he could photograph people without being noticed. But it’s humorous. People seem to know what he’s up to.
Shahn was the master of this kind of subterfuge. A photo he took as an employee of the Farm Security Administration in the 1930s clearly shows him using the right angle lens and the reaction of the subjects. Look closely at the reflection in the window behind the men.
Our final example is Roman Vishniac’s (1897-1990) photos in the Jewish ghettos of eastern Europe during the holocaust. His motives were laudable. Vishniac wanted to photograph people who within a few months would no longer exist. He entered the ghettos and discussed his project with the elders. They flatly told him, “no pictures”. Like Evans Vishniac tried to hide his small camera beneath his coat. Some of his photos show the pained expression of recognition on his subjects’ faces.
So, let’s sum up. Do you think it’s right to photograph people anywhere with your smartphone pretending to make a call? When you do this, are you in public space or private space? Do you think it’s right to photograph a blind person without permission? Do you think it’s right to use a camera in a way to deceive your subjects? I think the only ethical problem may be Vishniac’s deception. But some would argue his photos captured the victims of Nazi brutality and made it personal.
I would appreciate telling me your opinion in these examples.