Wednesday, May 26, 2010

photo shame

Migratory Cotton Picker, Arizona, by Dorothea Lange, 1949

When I visited the Met (Metropolitan Museum of Art) in NY earlier this month, I very briefly walked the long hall of the photography section looking for the stairs to the rooftop. I was conserving my limited museum endurance for specific galleries at the Met and the MoMA, and my #1 museum goal this trip was the Cartier-Bresson photography exhibit several blocks down 5th Avenue at the MoMA after lunch. It's good that I did protect my time and energy for Cartier-Bresson, because studying his photos on wall after wall was a powerful, and emotionally draining experience.

But en route to the Met rooftop, this photograph by Dorothea Lange caught my eye, so I stopped and spent some time with it. I took photos with the Nikon, and with my cell phone. I nabbed the image above from artnet. Here is the Nikon photo I took, at a wrong angle (the pic was too high to get it straight on) and with pink glare artifacts:

And here is the cell phone pic, unprocessed:

No matter how many times this migratory cotton picker in Arizona puts his hand up in NO we just keep taking his picture. By the time you get to my cell phone pic, he looks angry, or like the life has been sucked out of his eyes.

Here is the original image again, where his eyes look suddenly gentle after my cell phone version, even though his strong hand still acts as a barrier. I wonder if maybe he was only about to wipe perspiration from his upper lip. No, I think his fingers would have been relaxed in an arc if that were the case. We don't wipe our face with a flattened, stiff hand.

Below him is what is probably Lange's most famous photograph, Migrant Mother.

Migrant Mother, Dorothea Lange, February 1936

Photographs such as these, and those of Cartier-Bresson of people, are to be felt, not just seen.

Although Florence Owens Thompson, the woman in the photo that has come to represent the Depression, also has her hand to her face, she is not shielding her identity and shame from Lange's lens and our curiosity. But the children are. According to Wiki, her daughter Katherine, there on the left, said in a 2008 interview that the family felt shame at the fame of this photo.

Fame and shame. Nowadays (what an old fashioned word that is, no? nowadays - not befitting this digital age), with so many cameras in people's hands, photographing people in public is a topic of heated debate. In the days of this photo, Dorothea Lange had been hired by the Farm Security Administration (FSA) to document the desperate need, and to support with what some called propaganda, the effort to rehabilitate rural America. According to Wiki, Lange misreported the details of Thompson and her family, saying they had sold tires to get money to buy food. But one of the family said her story was wrong, because they didn't have any tires to sell. Maybe Lange got her stories mixed up with another family. But Lange also told the Thompsons the six photographs she took for ten minutes of them at a pea-pickers' camp where they had stopped for the night would not be published.

". . . but Lange sent them to the San Francisco News as well as to the Resettlement Administration in Washington, D.C. The News ran the pictures almost immediately, with an assertion that 2,500 to 3,500 migrant workers were starving in Nipomo. Within days, the pea-picker camp received 20,000 pounds of food from the federal government. However, Thompson and her family had moved on by the time the food arrived and were working near Watsonville."

Florence Owens Thompson was found by a reporter in 1978 (not that she was lost), forty years later, and this is what she had to say:

"I wish she [Lange] hadn't taken my picture. I can't get a penny out of it. She didn't ask my name. She said she wouldn't sell the pictures. She said she'd send me a copy. She never did."

Was the aid sent to the pea-picker camp worth the shame felt by the Thompsons, still, decades later? Wiki goes on to say that Lange never got royalties from the photo, since it was funded by the federal government and was public domain. But it did help her career as one of the greatest documentary photos ever.

A couple of years ago, at my photoblog I posted photos of two young men in orange prison jumpsuits at the county fair. They had to spend the day keeping the fairgrounds clean. A photo of one handsome boy's angry face with the Ferris Wheel behind him on the horizon was especially good, and I was proud of it. I saw myself as not just an ordinary middle aged woman for a minute, but as an important documentarian. The photo, however, got an angry reaction from one of my photoblog friends whom I admire. She asked, "What if he were your son? Would you want his photo there like that?" Other highly regarded photographer friends said, "Leave it, it's important." I searched my soul, and I recognized that I would not want my son's picture there, like that. And I also recognized that the anger in his face may have been from sensing my camera. I confess that I was trying to be as inconspicuous and secretive as I could. A juvenile delinquent can land in jail over a stupid, petty mistake, which can shape his life. Did I want to freeze him in that mistake forever? Oh dear, I don't know if I could ever be a photo journalist.

Here in the U.S. it is legal to take photos of people in public places, as long as you don't publish for commercial purposes without their permission. My own rule is that I won't take a photo of a person who is in public without much choice or power, such as the prisoners, or homeless people. If I had their permission, I would, but I doubt I would ever ask.

I realize this is a huge topic, with many avenues and contingencies, such as children in public, using photos of others without permission (such as that I nabbed above), and on and on. But my main point here is, Is it important to document the suffering of some in order to garner the support and help of others, even if it causes the subject shame?

Photograph of Lange on the jeep is by Rondal Partridge, FSA photographer.


Gwei Mui said...

Gosh Ruth what a consideration. I'd never really thought of it like that. The first time I came across Lange and Bresson was when I bought a book froma local second hand store full of black and white photogrpahs (Bresson and Lange being just two of about half a dozen photogrpahers.) Two pictures stuck wth me the Lange and a photograph shot by a French phtographer, I think (sadly I can't remember his name and no longer have the book it got burnt in fire) A woman has thrown herself from a window - he has caught the moment of flight before the body hits the ground. The feelings that those pictures instilled in me do they outweight the shame and the "voyerism" I really don't know.

Jeanie said...

What a lot of wonderful things to process here. I've not seen that first photo and your progression of emotion based on the way it was presented is really fascinating.

We face the "photo" dilemma here at the station quite often. And yes, while we'll often go for releases, even in public places, and try not to put up things that may upset, well -- sometimes you never know. As you say, you were proud of that photo (and it probably would be fine, as it was a documentary comment, albeit a silent one, as well). But the decision does get a little golden rule-y. I've had some pretty bad pix taken of me that I sure wouldn't want to turn up anywhere.

Generally, when I know people, they know I do the blog, and I generally say, "I won't put it up if you say no, and if you don't like it when it's there, I'll take it down." Most don't care. Some do. You'll seldom see more than the hands of my wine guide, or a wide shot with lots of us, so no one knows who he is. I often try to get photos in public of "backs" or unidentifiable parts. But it can be hard.

Much food for thought here.

VioletSky said...

I have always felt a little conflicted by the works of photographers such as Lange. I love her portraits as a body of work but once I learned more about her, I felt she was perhaps taking advantage of people who had so little say in anything about their lives. (or at least felt so).
Then again, you don't know who is feeling shame, or pride, or indifference to having their photo taken. I think of the Afghan woman who became the face of National Geographic and had no idea of how her photo had been used. How a royalty for the use of her image could have made a huge difference to so many people. And yet, somehow that seems wrong - to pay for what is free to see if you know where to look. Including a face.

BTW, I have had a few previous comments disappear from your comment box - maybe I type too fast and get the wrong word verification?

ah, I see Blogger changed their format - again. it used to tell you up top if your comment wasn't posted....

cathyswatercolors said...

Hmmm,Think of what the politicans could get away without photo journalists?
Tricky subject,but I say thank goodness we have these photos to document lives and events.

Your hubby does look like the most interesting man in the world... too funny:)

lovely you said...

This is something I am still conflicted about. I was just thinking about this topic the other day when I heard about the short documentary, The Death of Kevin Carter. Have you seen it? He was a South African photojournalist who took the famous vulture, starving child photograph which stirred much debate about a photojournalists' responsibility: to simply document, or to intervene. He committed suicide. I haven't seen it yet, but would like to. And I would like to keep thinking about this idea...thanks for the food for thought.

Babs-beetle said...

I don't usually take photographs of people, for that very reason. I feel I don't have a right to take their photo without their permission, and I don't have the courage to ask them. Besides, when you ask them, people usually start to pose, and that just isn't the same.

Loring Wirbel said...

I didn't get the shame impression, though it might be correct, I just thought he was wiping his arm randomly. Interesting view.

I assume you've read "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men"?

Patricia said...

When I was younger and would travel at will I never photographed people...only landscapes, buildings and animals. It seemed to me that if I was sensitive to having my photo taken, others felt the same.

alek said...

huge subject ruth, big moral debate - the right and wrong, should and should not, participation vs observation... is there any such thing as a impartial observation? - composition, exposure, impose standards on an image that the eye of an observer would not [although the recounting and sharing of what one might have merely seen also imposes partiality on the event] etc etc etc - however one thing we cannot escape from is - "needing to have reality confirmed and experience enhanced by photographs is an aesthetic consumerism to which everyone is now addicted. industrial societies turn their citizens into image junkies; it is the most irresistible form of mental pollution... today everything exists to end in a photograph." sontag. so the question is - would you prefer to have the historical record of the great depression through the lens of a photographer like Lange - who you discover is guilty of [somewhat] abusing the situation in order to achieve the image or not? in fact could you imagine this period of American history without that image coming to mind. and as regards your young man in the prison orange - the question there is obviously one of permission - as someone points out would you want that picture of your son in the now hyper public arena of the net - no you wouldn't, though that doesn't alter the fact that the young man is serving some kind of sentence for some kind of crime and that this is 'some kind of' his reality, though no amount of accurate captioning will address the first flight of imagination that our conscious flies on by association. This parallel world of images is here - we adjust our moral stance and the rules of the game as regards the recording [think of the proliferation of 'illegal' mobile phone images that came out of iraq] but it isn't going away.
There was a movie scenario[can't remember which] where a serial killer rigged up a killing device to a video camera linked to the internet, the more hits the video got the more accelerated the means of killing became - extreme example i know - but the issue in all addictions is not so much the supply as the demand. The debate about whether a photographer should or should not have taken the image will go on incessantly - and there will be victims misrepresented in those images - however you cannot deny that although Lange's 'migrant family' were not direct recipients of the FSA's program - that image did much to build public awareness to their plight and something was done

Terresa said...

I sense a thick discussion brewing.

I think I'll sum up my thoughts, they mirror yours:

"I don't know if I could ever be a photo journalist."

I like writing fiction because, even if I weave truth/real life experiences into it, if I weave enough fiction, and keep the majority fiction, it is still fiction.

Side note: Ann Lamott has quite the tutorial in her book, "Bird by Bird" about just that...

Deep thoughts, here. Well stated.

Lorenzo — Alchemist's Pillow said...

A very interesting post and one that raises some vexing issues. Am I correct in assuming that it is no coincidence that you posted this on May 26th, Dorothea Lange's birthday? Since I did not see it mentioned, I thought I would go ahead and say it.

You may enjoy an article entitled "American Pastorale" by Johnathan Raban from the New York Review of Books of last November 19, 2009 on two books about the life and work of Lange. The link should work if not it is:

João said...

Like Woody Guthrie's guitar a camera can also kill fascists...I think that's one of the reasons you chose to pick one and involve yourself in the matters of this world.
I think if you are involved in what's happening, you become part of it, so you have a right to record it and show it latter. It's all a matter of substance really.

Cusp said...

As ever a brillaint post and so rich and full of meaning: you always really make me think or cry or laugh.

This whole area is very contentious. I always thought that another issue around these images of Lange's was that many of them, such as the one with Florence and her children, were posed, set up and that this some how diluted their validity as reportage.

As you say it seems quite wrong that Florence never got a penny from use of her image and yet, even if it was in a roundabout way, Lange did profit from the image/s.

Years ago I developed a big photographic project documenting the lives of older people with learning disabilities who had lived most or all of their lives in a 'hospital'. The project then changed because the hospital was closing down and these folk were moving back into the community.

It was very difficult to ensure tha I had these people's permission to use their images because they were not necessarily intellectually aware or gifted enough to give permission or understand the ramifications of what I could do with their image.

In the end I involved them in the picture taking and in the creation of exhibitions, postcards etc. so that they were as fully involved as they could be and it became a two-way process/communication. They learnt a lot and so did I.

The contract we drew up said that I had the right to use their images as long as they were credited and we discussed subsequent use. It hadn't occurred to me (naively) that, since they were old I would be left with the images after they had died.

There is now a huge dificulty for me because all these folk are now dead (the project took place between 1991 and 1998) and I still have the images, the tapes of our conversations and yet don't feel right about using them because in a way it would feel like exploitation (the project also helped my career as an a artist though not necessarily financially) and their vulnerability had been exploited for the whole lives. The project was supposed to be partly about honouring their lives and experieneces.

This whole area is a minefield and particularly difficlut for me since I love to take pictutres of people -- they are my main interest but you simply cannot ask everyone's permission and if you do then 9 times out of 10 you lose any spontaneity in the image.

Ruth said...

Gwei Mui, I know just the photograph you're talking about, just saw it the other day in fact. It is extremely disturbing, knowing this person, alive in the photo, would be dead in seconds or minutes. The photo is here:

This site has one explanation of the photo, taken by Russell Sorgi.

He had followed a speeding police car to this street corner, and set up his camera. He even took two establishing shots while she was sitting on the ledge, and he quickly changed the film slide and got that shot of her just as she waved to the crowd and pushed off.

On one hand, something in me appreciates the existence of that photo, the power of it. But something else in me says I would have wanted to preserve her life in a different way. Would any talking or cajoling have helped prevent her suicide? Just don't think I could have lived with myself for photographing it.

Ruth said...

Jeanie, it's good that you are mindful about it and respect the wishes of your friends.

As for the station, you must have full time staff who see to these legal issues? I worked in MSU's Licensing office for a few months, and of course issues of how MSU is represented, right down to the color green (was Pantone 371, I believe, but the Board of Trustees officially replaced it in March, with Pantone 567) used on sweatshirts and mugs, were what we addressed.

dutchbaby said...

I share your reluctance to photograph people without their permission. My son and I met a National Geographic photographer at the San Francisco Ferry Building a few weeks ago. He often uses non-verbal communication to gain permission from his subject. He will smile, point to his camera, and nod with a questioning look on his face. If the person nods back, or poses for the shot, he will take that as tacit consent. I tried this a couple of times and found it to be a liberating experience. I got shots I never would have taken otherwise. The Sartorialist, btw, acquires written releases for every photo on his blog.

When traveling in third world countries, I often pay for photos in settings where a small payment is expected. I paid the amount recommended by our guide in Cusco prior to taking the photo I used for my May 5th post. The woman took my coins and turned her face profile to the camera. I thought it was perfect. Another reason to travel with small change at all times.

Thank you for another thought-provoking post, Ruth.

California Girl said...

I defer to my husband on the ethical nature of this topic. I believe you have to, legally, get their permission or not show a recognizable face.

I like your POV on the many faces of the migrant worker. You make a powerful point by publishing what I would call a series of degraded images by nature of the way you had to capture them. (hope that makes sense), the most degraded looking the angriest.

Ruth said...

Violetski, I was thinking of that Afghan woman with the beautiful eyes too. I was fascinated when they posted her picture years (maybe 20) later, to see how she had aged. It was a strange moment, because I expected her to always be frozen in her youth, in that version of her beauty, not to see her as an aging woman, like myself. I think we all learned something inexpressible from that photograph. Something about another culture, and universality, and beauty, and I don't know what.

Oh this dratted comment box. I took word verification off now. Let's see how long I can go without spam.

Ruth said...

I know, Cathy. I heard that one of the reasons BP chose the Top Kill treatment of the oil spill was to push the oil down, away from the surface where it can be photographed and video-ed by journalists. What we see does provide some kind of "proof" of what someone tells us. Can be used for any agenda.

Yes, isn't it funny about the Most Interesting Man? We have such a good time coming up with new statements about him.

Ruth said...

Tracy, hi. No, I haven't seen it, thanks for making me go look at it. I'd heard of it. As the film synopsis states (, the Bang Bang Club's brave photos of violence against blacks in S. Africa helped the movement against Apartheid. The synopsis makes it sound as though his suicide wasn't for guilt that he didn't intervene, necessarily, but that he couldn't get rid of the images of suffering he'd witnessed, and it tormented him to death.

Ruth said...

I just read this story about the Vietnamese girl, Phan Thi Kim Phuc, who was made famous by Nick Ut's photograph of her running down the road, crying in 1972, her back being burned by napalm. He also took a photo of Paris Hilton crying, 35 years later, when she was told she had to serve a 23-day sentence in jail.

In the Vietnam case, Ut got Kim Phuc into a car and to the hospital, where she passed out from the pain. She survived and ended up moving to Toronto. At the time of the story I read, link below, Ut and Kim Phuc were still in touch.

Arti said...

First off, I'm just all envious of your wonderful trip to NY, and to the Cartier-Bresson exhibits. As I mentioned before, recently I've been mesmerized by another Bresson, the filmmaker, whose Pickpocket and Diary of a Country Priest are two magnificent works.

Back to your post... this is definitely a huge subject. Ruth, you've presented a thought-provoking case. I've appreciated, again, your openness in sharing... even the negative comments you received. I haven't done any research on this, but as far as I know, in Canada anyway, any public photos where the subject is identifiable has to be approved by the subject before being published. So that's why I hesitate to take pictures of people. We sure guard our privacy here... but then again, without exposure of 'realities', we would be less informed.

I'm sure though the field of photojournalism has its own professional codes of ethics... which, I'm sure must have gone through modifications as our society changes. In other words, guidelines are changeable depending on the social condition and context. Again... thanks for a stimulating post.

Arti said...


I'd the chance to hear Kim Phuc speak. She shared her experience, the whole ordeal. She's UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador, and involved in many humanitarian organizations promoting peace. But the most important message she shared with us was forgiveness. You see, she found the pilot who organized the bombing operation, met him and openly forgave him. Her story is amazing. She's one dynamic woman. She has started a foundation for the benefit of all children of war. Here's her website:

Gwei Mui said...

Thank you for the information Ruth.

Ruth said...

Babs, I've had a few regrets over the years of missed photos. Once in our small college town I went to get coffee and passed two fellows on the sidewalk, talking. One was standing, still, on one of those segway personal transportation thingies, and the other wasn't, and they talked along like it was perfectly normal. I'm sure they would have been glad for me to take their picture and post it at East Lansing Daily Photo, well maybe. I keep thinking the regret for missing times like that will make me ask the next time.

Ruth said...

Loring, I guess there's no way to know. I bet even the cotton picker himself would not remember what he was doing.

I have not read Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, but I see from the description why you would ask. I shared this post with my friend in the English department who teaches film and the photographic image, and he also asked if I'd read it. I'll be having lunch with him next week, and we'll be talking about this issue, because he's writing a book about the representation of suffering in film this summer.

Ruth said...

I hear you, Patricia.

However I've come to feel that photos with people in them are so much more interesting. I laughed when I mentioned this to rauf in India, and that I am trying to get more people in to the frame, and he said in India we have too many people, so we're always trying to get a pic without people in it. He was being funny, and his pics with people are wonderful. But I do think the golden rule is the most important thing. Since I wouldn't mind being in another person's photo, then I guess I don't feel strongly against taking pics of people. It's important though, to find a way to do it that acknowledges them and their wishes, without losing spontaneity.

Ruth said...

Hi, Alek. :) It's great to see you, and I appreciate the time you took in your intelligent, big picture comment.

Well, first off, I bought Sontag's book of essays On Photography last night after work. She moved this in a fascinating direction, to what a photograph means to us in our culture.

Every scenario is tricky, and sometimes the ethics get worked out, or not, after the fact. Sometimes you shoot something in a split second, and you freeze something powerful. Whether it gets published is the next, more deliberate step. How it's published, use, context.

For myself, I do feel the photo Migrant Worker has value to the Nth degree, even if it cost Thompson shame. It's possible even she could be convinced it was worth it. Who knows? I certainly don't want to overcontrol all this. In the U.S., it is legal to photograph anyone in public. Publishing for commercial purposes is a different thing, and requires consent.

So I mentioned to you at FB that my friend Karl is finishing a book this summer, and we're going to chat over lunch next week about this. When I posted this I didn't know the topic of his book, the representation of suffering since WWII:

"Brutal Humanism: The Neorealist Body and Global Spectators (University of Minnesota Press forthcoming 2011), examines how Italian neorealist films shaped U.S. film culture after World War II, refashioning the practices and politics of filmgoing. The book's analysis explores how Rome Open City, Shoeshine, Outcry and other postwar Italian films depend upon scenarios of physical suffering to dramatize the stakes of vision and the need for extranational eyewitnesses. The Neorealist detailing of the brutalized body underwrites a new visual politics of liberal compassion. Using corporeal spectacles to welcome the foreign observer as a much-needed political participant, the "brutal humanism" of these films provides an affective bolster to the socio-economic bonds of the North Atlantic community."

Stepping back, and out, into the bigger picture is something you've always helped me do. I appreciate that very much.

Ruth said...

Terresa, thank you. Lamott's title and concept are perfect in this context. Bird by bird. Each case, each subject, has to be taken as it comes, attentively. I wish Lange were here to talk about her story, as well as I would like to hear from her subjects. But I can imagine time pressing, and events unfold quickly, and stopping to write down every name and story to keep them straight would be arduous.

Ruth said...

Lorenzo, ha! Yes! I had seen at The Writer's Almanac that it was her birthday, which then gelled with the photo I had just photographed at the Met the week before. I meant to mention her birthday. So thank you for the documentation here. :)

I just began the article, thank you, and since it's long, I will finish it a little later, and then respond more fully. But initially let me say, I love the concept of the pastoral as this implied " . . . beautiful relation between the rich and poor . . . by making . . . simple people express strong feelings . . . in learned and fashionable language."

Indeed we want to see. Everything. Especially those who are like us, but not like us, and sometimes suffering, even when we do not understand it.

Ruth said...

João, I am reading Sontag's book On Photography, and in just the first essay (not finished yet) she talks about that, sort of on a spectrum. On one end, we want to be part of what we see, and freeze the memory. On the other, it distances us from something we can't quite absorb, but appreciate, like the Eiffel Tower. What else does a person do with that monument?

I decided not to pick up a camera during Lesley & Brian's wedding last summer. I knew it would distance me from what was happening (a blog friend reinforced idea). Others had cameras, that was enough. I gave my camera to Dee Dee, and she caught some wonderful scenes of people that I didn't even see, and I'm so grateful to always have that record of the day, through her eyes.

margie said...

i am reluctant to take photos in public. sometimes it feels intrusive and at the same time begs to be taken.

Sandy said...

Lots to think about, for sure. I have definitely posted photos I've taken of strangers. hmmm...

anyway, i LOVE that banner!!

Sandy said...

Ruth the photos at your SMALL blog are wonderful! I love the wood frog..

♥ Kathy said...

I'm pretty good about asking "do you mind if I take your picture?" before I start snapping. I know I would want to be asked. I hope you're doing well Ruth!

rauf said...

Ruth, one picture i regret taking was in 'There is no light here' post, the first picture

Then i walked up to her and she smiled, she knew i was taking her picture. There was a bamboo post blocking half her face, i wanted to move but i would have lost the expression on her face.

Hardly any one objects to be photographed in India Ruth, but i have to choose what not to shoot. Believe me i would have chosen not to take Florence's picture, the migrant mother.

Nancy said...

This is a really good question, and I can't answer it. I do believe we need to document history in the making, but with all of the digital ways of being taken advantage of, I can see the other side of the debate.

Susan said...

Would the atrocities that the Nazis perpetrated on the Jewish people be forever burned into our brains without the photos that recorded the effects of those crimes?

Would statesmen and politicians likely be held accountable for their wrongdoings if someone didn't catch them in the act, proof positive for the world to see?

Exploitation? No. Revelation? Yes.

I do draw the line at photographing other people's children without their permission, and then not a full-face shot. I also don't think I could take anyone's picture who was in emotional pain.

Ruth said...

Cusp, I believe some laws are different in the UK about all these things. But regardless, your sensitivity to the rights of your documentary subjects is commendable. I love how you included them in creating the exhibits, that is a brilliant way to ensure that they were aware of how you published them. I appreciate your concern after their passing, but I wonder if you knew they seemed fine with using their images while they were alive, why you wouldn't after they passed? But I know I feel strange when I see an image of someone in an advertising after I know they are gone, which happens once in a while. It sounds as though you feel you should tuck the images away of those who have died. Or maybe you could do a new project, including them.

Thank you very much for your meaningful interaction with this topic.

Ruth said...

Dutchbaby, thank you. Both methods you wrote about are respectful and simplify things. I wonder if the National Geographic photographer has to get releases though, in case the photos end up in print or online at their site?

It disturbed me in the article Lorenzo posted in his comment (I've read half of it so far) that according to Florence Thompson's grandson, Lange started photographing the instant she stepped foot in the camp and after several minutes introduced herself.

When we were in NYC, where I snapped the pic of the bridal couple posing with the saxophone player in Central Park, I saw the bride put a bill in his case, and Lesley and I wondered how much you would put in so that you could pose while the professional photographer took your picture? Also, there were many of us photographing their photo op, and they seemed aware of the spectacle they caused and felt it was all an acceptable part of the experience.

Ruth said...

California Girl, you only need permission if you are going to publish it for commercial purposes, such as iStock Photo, or a newspaper. Actually, I've read that the cover of a newspaper is considered advertising/commercial, whereas inside a newspaper is considered "editorial."

This site (maybe outdated, as it's from 1999) is a photographer's guide privacy rights in all 50 states:

Thank you for commenting on the progression of images. It reminds me of the game telephone, where the original statement gets changed each time a person whispers it into the next person's ear. By the end, it is a revelation to compare the first and last. We affect what we observe. We interpret. We decide what we share. Like our blogs. We don't show each other everything, just what we want to reveal. I read in Lorenzo's article that the FSA photographers took hundreds of photos and chose the ones that expressed what they wanted, of course. Even photos, which seem to be the most truthful medium, have been chosen to reveal a certain truth, that probably leaves out another.

Ruth said...

Arti, my friend, it seems that both you and I received a special spark from "our" Bressons. I know that a new path has opened for me. I wish I had read Sontag's On Photography when it came out, because I think I would have chosen a different realm. But how could I not have what I have now, which is bliss?

Oh! Were there some negative comments? I didn't sense that. I love the discussion, really I do.

Yes, the rules are different in places outside the U.S., which has interested me these last couple of months, since Vagabonde mentioned the rules in France: no photos of people in public (or maybe just publishing them, I don't remember).

I posted a link to the photographer's guide to privacy rights in all 50 states in my last comment to California Girl. While there is a lot of leeway legally here, individuals must decide within themselves, reflectively, what is right for them in taking photos of people, and publishing them. I think those strokes have to be painted with a fine brush.

I am very touched by what you report about Kim Phuc. It's one thing to forgive after pain like that. It's quite another thing to then look for the pilot. Then another to start that foundation! She overcame so many physical problems, initially, and over the years! She is turning pain into activities for children and wounded in many places. I'm so glad to know this.

Ruth said...

You're welcome, Gwei Mui.

Ruth said...

Margie, I've noticed that you sometimes take pics of parts of people, so they aren't recognizable. I think having a human in the pic makes it better much of the time.

Ruth said...

Sandy, we each get to decide. I have posted them too. I think if they are not in compromising situations, or powerless and being exposed in some shameful way, there isn't a problem.

Thank you, I'm glad you love the header and the small photos. :)

dutchbaby said...

I saw a reference to the Afghan woman with the beautiful eyes. The photo was taken by Steve McCurry. I periodically read his fantastic blog at
where he features pictures of many people around the world. Most know they are being photographed yet he is still able to capture their essence.

Thank you for hosting this meaningful discussion.

Ruth said...

I'm doing great, ♥ Kathy, thank you. :)

Good that you ask. I think that once you do it at least once, it gets easier. I realize that when I post certain events, like our Farm Day here in August on our farm, I don't usually ask my family if they're ok with their pics on my blog. I think this year I'll have Don get their attention and ask if anyone objects to tell me (in private). It's just about respect, isn't it?

Ruth said...

rauf, I'm glad she smiled and connected with you that way after you felt bad.

I know Dorothea Lange had a job to do. She is not here to ask about this. She died in 1965, maybe before much controversy was known about the situation. Maybe she would have felt bad. I don't know. But I think of how Bennett would have been, and you, the #1 priority would have been to treat the people with respect and decency, not to just stick a camera in their face. I don't know if she really did that, the way her grandson said she did in his blog (mentioned in the article Lorenzo posted in his comment). He might have had his own agenda, and maybe even the story got worse over time, as stories sometimes do.

I have a hard time even asking for a photo of someone I sit and talk with. Like the bookstore owner in Saugatuck, that pretty place on the second floor. We had a nice 30 minute chat, and I wanted to ask for his picture. But I just didn't want to make him uncomfortable. I regret not asking him. Same in Astoria, Queens, the Greek chap and shopkeeper, I wanted to take their picture together.

I love your pictures of people, rauf. You've been the biggest factor in changing my feelings about photographs coming alive with people in them. Alek's photos too. But Alek uses models, so their consent is explicit.

photowannabe said...

Whew, you have posed some meaty moral issues in this blog. the artistry of the Lange photo has stayed with me for years as has the Life Viet Nam one and the National Geo. Art vs. documaentation and journalism are heavy issues. As one commentor said, each case has its own set of issues. Ok, I've babbled on and I will say there is much to think about.
I very rarely post people on my blog and my family doesn't want their children on the computer for the whole world to see. I do honor their wishes.
Thanks for this powerful post.

Vagabonde said...

It was so interesting reading your post and all the comments. It is a difficult subject. I sometimes look at a blog of a lady here in the South who takes many pictures of anonymous people in Paris. I asked her if she asked for their permission and she said no, so I looked at the French laws. They have changed since the time of Cartier Bresson and now he would not be able to take his pictures, at least in France and the French community. You can take picture of anything you like in France but cannot publish them anywhere without the person’s consent, even in blogs as this is considered a public place. I read the photo laws on some other countries, for example the laws in Canada are the same as here in the US, but the laws in Quebec province are like in France. Unless I take a huge group of people, like in sport or other public events, I ask if I can take the picture. I did yesterday asked a young gardener in the lovely gardens we visited and she accepted. I also asked their names so I can say, this is the picture of X in front of X, but I rarely take picture of lone persons. I have had people say no to me and I did not take their picture. I would not like it if someone took my picture without my consent, unless I was a very long way away. I worked for years with Muslim people and they are very sensitive about having their pictures taken, so I guess it stayed with me. I have been in places with terrible poverty, like in Ethiopia, I mean the people were very poor. I just could not take their pictures to show it to others.

Ruth said...

Nancy, I guess there are as many motives for taking photos of people as there are motives for anything in life. Some are selfish, some are cruel, some are out of love of beauty. It makes sense to be careful, ask permission if possible, and be sensitive to another person's wishes.

Ruth said...

Susie, yes, what if the President of Iran denied the Holocaust, and there was no photographic evidence? He can deny all he wants, but skeletons covered with skin and sunken eyes have a voice that can't be silenced.

I'm glad you are able to post photos of your grandchildren. It's such a joy to watch them explore, grow up, interact, and demonstrate the love of family.

Ruth said...

Oh Dutchbaby, his photographs are fantastic. Thank you for the introduction, I will follow him now.

I saw in the first several shots in India that he showed aspects of life some would not want to show. "It is bad for tourism," they might say. rauf encounters this with his friends who object to his photos of tribes people outcasts and untouchables.

Ruth said...

It's tough, Sue. For all of us, the photo of Florence Thompson is a powerful representation of the Depression of a person we never knew. Her grandson says that she felt like, Ok, here's this photographer, she thinks I'm quaint, let her do her thing. I would want to spend more time with people, like Shelby Lee Adams who went back to the "holler" in Kentucky where she grew up. Because she left, some people said she betrayed her people by leaving, and changing. But the piece is moving, because she spent time with people, and wanted to show them out of her love and connectedness with them.

Here's the article:

Ruth said...

Vagabonde, I have learned about the policies of other countries from you, mainly France before. I have not looked at all the states' policies here in the link I posted in a previous comment, and they may have changed since 1999 too, the date of the publication.

I was talking with Inge yesterday about this issue, and she too mentioned Muslims and other people groups who feel you are taking something of their soul to photograph them. I stood in line to get Orhan Pamuk's signature at a book signing and talked with a covered Muslim girl. I asked if I could take her picture, but (of course) she declined.

I read a great piece of advice in a travel book. If you travel to foreign countries, think about this: When you photograph your own children, you spit on your finger and wipe the dirt off their face. You dress them in good, clean clothes. When you visit another place, you see "street urchins" who are dirty and wearing clothes with holes. It is picturesque, you think. Try balancing both perspectives. a) Relax a little about photographing your own children, and b) find ways to be respectful when photographing people in less fortunate circumstances in other parts of the world.

Ann said...

One of New Zealand's Prime Minister was a Lange, pronounced Long nge, not Lang.

I am not announced to publish children's photos unless I have the parents' permission.

How's your weather? We are getting 1 degrees tonight. Too early for this cold weather.

Bella Rum said...

I've actually thought about this quite a bit. We're living in a time in which privacy is rapidly disappearing in a number of areas.

I like the suggestion of getting permission by nodding at the person and pointing to my camera and waiting for a nod of acceptance.

Great food for thought here, Ruth!

ds said...

Wow, this is quite a discussion you've sparked, Ruth. First, I hadn't realized that Dorothea Lange took that iconic photograph. Second, because she did speak with Florence Owens Thompson, and promise her things (according to Thompson; yes, one must consider the source), then I think that Lange should have made good on those promises. Had she merely snapped the family from afar, the issue would be moot.

But I am not comfortable snapping photos of strangers, mostly because I am not comfortable having my own picture taken. (and isn't the expression itself interesting--we "take" photographs as if grabbing at a little piece of a person's soul, hence the laborer's arm position? or we "grab" or "sneak" them, as if photography itself were a clandestine art. Yet portraits are "made" or drawn/sketched/painted. Completely aboveboard. Just a weird thought, sorry.)

Peter said...

Some of the striking and famous photos have certainly contributed to much more than their author’s reputation. But, behind all these photos there are certainly moral – and sometimes legal – question marks. Today, as bloggers we must also question our rights. Most of us used to possibly put some photos in the family album; today our photos are potentially available worldwide, maybe copied… Personally, I have decided to more concentrate on things than on people, sometimes to my regret. However, even “things” are sometimes private or protected (“no photos”…).

Ginnie said...

It tires me out thinking about all the shoulds and shouldn'ts these days, Ruth, when it comes to photography. The Age of Aquarius is a time of Internet regulation, I have read, and so it is that we're trying to figure out how to protect everyone's privacy in this format we have to live with, like it or not. In the past, without the Internet, a photograph would not usually find its way around the world in a day or two, if ever. So much to think about, indeed. Thanks for reminding us to be careful...and to pay attention!

Ruth said...

Hi, Ann, oh dear, early winter for you? Yes, people here feel strongly about posting photos of children, even though there is no law against it. I completely understand the concerns.

Ruth said...

Bella, looking, nodding and pointing to the camera is my favorite way theoretically too. I haven't tried it yet. I'm still chicken.

Ruth said...

DS, I read later in that article Lorenzo posted that during this period of Lange's career, she was especially careful to spend time with the subjects of her photographs, even learning their work and getting to know them. Apparently it was a very unusual interlude that she spent such a short time with the Thompsons. It's too bad in away that this is the photo that became famous, if I think of it that way.

Not a weird thought. Closely related, I was reading Sontag about other words, the vocabulary of "shooting" film, it's an aggression, a camera is phallic in a way! So fascinating.

Ruth said...

That's true, Peter. Here in the U.S. there are strict rules about photographing copyrighted things, like logos.

Ruth said...

Oh, Boots, that's interesting, I had not heard that.

I don't know if you've heard about them, but there have been local scandals here in the U.S. when a girl sends her boyfriend a nude photo of herself on her cell phone, then it will suddenly make the rounds to all their friends. Unbelievably, after it's happened already and made the news, kids are still stupidly doing that. :|

Oliag said...

I love your progression of photos is striking how each shot did change the character of the image...

I am uncomfortable taking pictures of other people (except grandchildren of course:) but I have to say that my favorite photos to really look at are the documentary type "street photos" of many stories to read into them...

M said...


This is perhaps one of the most thoughtful and engaging posts I've read on any blog. Actually, a post like this gives me hope for blogging as a forum for conversation rather than just the issuing forth of ideas without benefit of dialogue.

I kept thinking as I read, having seen the photo of the family many times and also as a fan of Walker Evans work during that time, that photographs are stories captured by someone who by virture of taking the photo becomes part of the story---sort of like the concept of participant observer in anthropology, which has now been discounted at the acknowledgement that you can't be a detached observer and participant simultaneously. I guess any photographer becomes part of the story the moment his or her eye selects out a subject.

I think, too, of how when I was teaching drama, we explored the idea that the stories characters tell about each other and themselves are never wholly true. That is, any story, even the stories you tell about yourself, is really only really part of a more complicated and complex narrative. What makes photos and drama so interesting is how the photographer/writer seizes on a subject/story and renders it visually or verbally.

Sorry to ramble on about what is probably more than obvious, but I am still thinking this through...sign of an exellent post if you ask me!

Flat Rock Creek Notebook

Pat said...

A lot of times I have asked the people, "Do you mind if I take your picture?" before snapping. But, I have to admit, I HAVE taken pictures of people without their permission. Usually it's from a distance and I feel like you can't see their faces enough to identify them. Does that make it okay? I don't know. But they weren't suffering in the photos, either.

Ruth said...

I agree, Oliag. Those street photographs say more true things about our world.

Ruth said...

Mary, thank you for your excellent comment.

I've sort of fallen in love with these photographs from the 30s, Walker Evans' among them. Photographs, and the points you beautifully "rambled" about, get at US and culture, because perception is what we're constantly dealing with these days. It led to my current post on Thirteen Ways. We are told what to think by the media about what is happening in the world, and we have to decipher for ourselves what is relevant, important, and "true."

Ruth said...

Pat, it's perfectly legal, and perfectly fine, in my opinion, to take pictures of people in public without asking permission. This is a very personal issue that we each get to decide. I do think it's important to know the rules, and to be circumspect about it. I would love to do what you're doing and drive across the country on a road trip, like Garry Winogrand did in 1964, camera in hand.