My opinions about Photographing the Homeless and Using Hipstagram-like Filters; negative

June 28, 2013  •  3 Comments

DCpeace702007-09-15_46 I love photography and see it, not only as a way that I can be creative, but as a way to isolate and capture 'truths' about the world that I see and hold onto them. Perhaps that sounds a little woo-woo but when I look at a really great picture, it sticks with me, penetrates my consciousness to mean something that ongoing reality doesn't do.

Perhaps that is why I have such strongly held beliefs about photography and the spirit in which it should be done. Combine that with a personal defensiveness and irritability when people take me for a fool and what results is the cranky judgmental person that I am.

The guiding principles for how I try to work and how I judge work I see are only two: a successful photo must bring to the viewer some hint of what the photographer finds, if not unique then at least interesting about the scene, a hint of original perspective and secondly, the treatment of the image must flow from the content. 

I think that, to be effective, images must be more than just repetition of what is in front of the camera with the minor comments implied by lens and framing choice. A picture must have a point of view and show the hand, the mind and the emotion of the photographer. Further, anything done to the image in post-processing to give it greater impact or to concentrate the viewers' attention should be coherent with the content.

Even documentary photographers, who are presenting a reality, must try to present that reality in such as way as to show what they saw that makes that in the frame interesting.

Much of my attitude towards photographs, whether they are successful or not in my estimation, stems from my overarching belief that good photographs must have some resonance with my emotions; a photograph must persist through intellectual appreciation and somehow connect with emotional memories that allow me to appreciate and remember it. I think that the 'better' the photograph, the more universal its appeal.

That being said, the title and the theme of this piece reflects the distaste and resentment I experience when a photographer attempts to mislead me with tricks – cheap or expensive – by appealing to these emotional links.

Photographers should actually try to present the truth. By that, I don't mean truth in the literal sense that they are not falsifying the content (that should go without saying but unfortunately sometimes does not**), but truth in that the subject or content is really the issue and not just a placeholder or shortcut. As an example, if I was reporting at the scene of a fire and, instead of showing pictures of the actual firefighters at the scene, used pictures of dirty, smoky firefighters made at the fire training academy because they were better pictures, whatever the similarities of the situations, I think that would be a lie and unethical.

 (For an interesting on point discussion about this read   and

Now how does this relate to the idea of shooting the homeless, just capturing the person in a situation, with no back-story, no supporting issues, just a gritty gritty image of a person whose situation is much more difficult than ours, much less comfortable, with much less privacy?  

My initial and very personal non-photographer response is that taking these pictures is exploiting another human's situation for our own good; the photographer is taking pictures only because they will elicit a known response and the photographer is taking advantage of the subject to do it.

(The immediate counter argument one sees is either that the photographer is showing the world something terrible they need to be aware of or that, in some way, the photographer is paying them to 'model' either by giving them some money or buying them some food. Clearly the response of 'enlightening the world' is silly. At least in the US, pictures of the homeless and destitute abound. Unless one has been asleep for the last 125 years and has no exposure to electronic or print media, we know what their life is like, no more of this is needed and that excuse is just that, a rationalization.  The second response is that they are being reimbursed and so it is a normal photographer-model transaction.  Is the photographer paying them the same rates as he would pay a model to use what they have?  Does the photographer get a model release? No one has yet claimed that. )

Taking pictures of the homeless is exploitative in the same way that talking a intellectually challenged person into doing something is exploitative because, in both cases, their circumstance doesn't give them the perspective or the options to say no that most of us have.

And it is done because the photographer knows the emotional appeal of this kind of picture and, instead of working on his/her own to show us something new, has taken the cheap and easy way.

Recently I read a blog post by Alex Garcia, a photojournalist from the Chicago Tribune, and he made this statement that rings true for me as a photographer about most pictures of the homeless : "a subject shouldn't become a symbol and a shortcut for an unrelated truth that a photographer has failed to capture elsewhere." ( in The Age of Fauxjournalism by Alex Garcia)

That is a more incisive view on the issue. Shooting images of subjects, the characteristics of whose life and situation we know well, just to get the gritty images is a shortcut, a substitute for really looking at the situation. Instead of any deeper look into the situation that would be useful, informative or meaningful, the picture is saying 'here is a grubby, dirty person without much. Feel bad for them and good that you aren't like that.'  This kind of shortcut could be considered almost unethical on one level and almost cheating on another because the photographer is just attempting to stir up emotional responses in the cheapest way, without doing any work but using another human as fodder.

And I respond negatively for two reasons. First, because the photographer is taking the cheap way out, substituting an emotional trick for real insight and second, because I am insulted that the photographer takes me -or the public - for such a dunce that I would buy their trick. The photographer is saying, with their picture, 'here is some emotion and stuff for you, it is fake, it is made up and you are too stupid, such a slave to your responses, that you can't help but like it.'

Pictures of the homeless are the sugar-coated, nutrition-free breakfast cereal of the photography world.

Now how does this issue of taking a shortcut, conflate with the use of Instagram, Hipstamatic or, at an even more professional level, Photoshop actions?

Again from Alex Garcia, 

"You couldn't just use a method for method's sake. Like art, the medium of visual communication should be appropriate for the subject matter. If you were photographing a brilliant artist, you might use intense colors to express bursting creativity. Or, you might match the color scheme ........ to the schemes present in the subject, ......" (from Does the Use of Hipstamatic and Instagram Betray Photojournalism by Alex Garcia )

Post-processing is planned to add some sort of visual impact to an image, and much of the time that post-processing is intended to convey specific impressions, to add some meaning to the image. Street photos are often processed to appear in grainy b&w, vintage photos are often yellow and faded and so on.

The meaning is generally understandable because of our common experiences our society and there is nothing wrong with using effects in post-processing that allude to or reinforce the content of the photo. That the effects have common associations is recognized even by the companies that produce suites of effects in their names - effect names such as 'vintage', 'modern',  'classical', etc.

I don't think there is anything wrong with using processing that helps the image have more of an impact; after all, making an impact is what I am trying to do with my photos.

What I do think is wrong - and even repellent - is using effects to actually originate the emotion that should stem from the content of the photo.

Instead of looking at a picture to experience the content, the viewer experiences the processing, the substitute.  Witness extreme HDR; what percentage of those we see have an interesting image without the hdr effect? Is there something in this image that we would look at if there wasn't an HDR effect applied? What about the millions of images that are 'Hipstamatic'-ed or 'Instagram'-ed, not because there is any reason for the particular filter but because 'they look cool'?

And when, through the wonders of modern technology, everything gets beaten up with processing, everything has effects, everything is covered by layers of 'stuff',  then what will art lose?  Just as Pavarotti would be unheard in a huge crowd singing, I am afraid that well done, coherent images will get swamped in the flood of Instagram-ed and Hipstamatic-ed crap, the silly substitutions for meaning.  

 Yes I know the world has changed but is change always for the good?

Is there anything to do, is the work of photographers who want to create and be seen going to be drowned out?

Well, I can't see the future but I know what I will do. 

I will resist. 


**as another on point experience, I saw a very nicely composed photo in a forum for candid, urban and photojournalistic pieces. In fact, the composition was so perfect - and the physical point of view of the photo so improbable that, after reading the discussion, I made the observation that it looked staged. Eventually the photographer admitted that it was staged - and used as a justification that the photographer had a college degree in photography and the very concepts of making 'snapshots' had been removed from her consciousness, so she had staged this shot.

Perhaps the photographer was not in class for the 'ethics in photojournalism' lecture. 


If you haven't yet caught up with the photo blogs at the Chicago Tribune, I would recommend at least Shooting from the Hip by Scott Strazante and Assignment Chicago by Alex Garcia; both of these are excellently written and some of their content inspired this blog post.

I am grateful to Amolitor at the Photography Forum for his comments on the draft of this piece that helped immensely in the rewriting.






Charles "Duck" Unitas(non-registered)
I came across this post through your Photo Camel post. I agree with you on the use of homeless people to elicit an emotional response. I love street photography and find vagrants to be too easy a target withou any real content. I try to expound that lesson on my photography students. However, the basis for your argument can be turned around and used with just about every type of subject.

Taking a photo of a homeless man sleeping in a doorway to elicit an emotional response is the same as photographing a beautiful upper class housewife shopping in front of a jewelry store window.the only difference being the 'type' of emotion being elicited. Or a cute baby nestled in their mother's arms, or a cop kneeling on a suspect's head...

As photographers, we have, by years of icononical imagry, learned to associate specific images to specific emotional responses. The more one understands these associations the more powerful the images become. Photojournalists bank on this knowledge. It's what makes or breaks an award winning photo. Photographers don't win awards with the 'content' of their image but what 'emotion' that content elicits. Some of our most indelibly remembered photos have been of horrific scenes of war, famine, tragedy and human suffering because the emotions attached to them are so great.

The argument whether taking a photo of a vagrant just because it elicits a specific response can be argued many ways depending on the person's point of view, and it has been for over 150 years. It al boils down to what the photographer's perspective is at the time it was taken. On a high ground, maybe it was taken to illustrate the awful conditions of a Modern society, maybe mot. Maybe the photographer was moved by the emotion felt at that time in that situation and wanted to capture it for posterity. Then again, maybe it's just a matter of, "I've seen images like this before. I think I'll take one too."

Great article.
I don't know much about this Hipstamatic thing (I am a black sheep in my generation for refusing to get a smart phone at all), but photographing the homeless is something I have been thinking a lot about. I've only had my camera for a month now, but I made the resolution very early on to not photograph the homeless for the reasons you just outlined. On the one hand, I was tempted to do a photo essay on poverty in my area. On the other, I think such a subject is best left to more abstract numbers, not an amateur with a camera who will take more fuzzy shots than anything useful. I'll stick to dogs and plays of light for now.

We live in an age of constantly evolving views on privacy. I think it's clear that those of us with cameras and microphones have a responsibility for what we distribute. The homeless aren't props for our art. Glad to see I'm not the only person who thinks about these things.
Thank you for your courage. I am cut from the same cloth. There are a few of us still around. Bernadette
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