A few years ago, I received an official-looking letter in the post that accused me of committing a truly heinous crime, for which I should be very ashamed. In amongst the formal language, that looked like it came straight from a policeman’s notebook, was the invitation to view a video of said crime. After the usual mental security checks to make sure I wasn’t being had, I went to the website to have a look. The video was of a busy road junction in what looked like a city centre, with traffic lights, lots of pedestrians, dogs etc. In the top corner was a clock that documented when my crime took place. This tedious piece of footage progressed for several seconds before the camera dramatically panned to the left and slowly zoomed in on something. Wait, is that my car? The zooming continued until all I could see was a front wheel and a number plate, which was indeed mine. Then the crime itself. More predictable than a Marvel film, and probably about as interesting, the plot of this film was pretty clear, and what had happened was that my car had crept about 6 inches over the edge of a box junction. The letter informed me that the local authority was fining me for this transgression. After much questioning of the authority’s parentage, I paid the fine and forgot about it. Until this past weekend, that is.
I was on assignment, shooting Malvern Pride, which was the second time I’d been part of this wonderful and important event. This year would be a different experience for me, however, as a direct result of the unit that I’m currently studying for my degree. I’ve mentioned ethics, representation, and consent in previous blog posts, and how a photographer’s approach to them is a personal decision, based on their own values. In the case of this shoot, ethical considerations had been on my mind for several weeks. I had questioned whether I, as a heterosexual man, should be documenting the event in the first place, even if it was for the organisers. They were primarily interested in capturing the party spirit and the celebration of the LGBTQ+ community embodied in Pride, which is a big part of but not the whole story. If I wanted the images to be as much about the continuing struggles that the community has to be accepted and respected as people in what seems to be an ever-uncaring political landscape, could an external observer ever do justice to that representation? I had an idea to use the shots from the day to form part of a wider social documentary project, so this question was an important one to answer. I eventually squared it away in my mind by considering Cornell Capa’s concept of the Concerned Photographer, formulated in the 1950s. Capa was a respected photographer with Life Magazine for over a decade, who was also part of the renowned Magnum Photos agency. He chose social and political issues that were important to him and created powerful photo-essays that didn’t merely document a situation, but instead advocated attention to them by educating his audience. I wasn’t thinking of Pride specifically in these terms, as I am no Capa, but I eventually determined that I would be as good as any other photographer that I know at telling the stories of the people attending. That left the consideration of consent, which is itself the purpose of this post. I’m still learning about this subject, do don’t profess to be an expert. These are my thoughts on what I experienced regarding consent on the day, and the behaviours I believed were needed in addressing it.
One way of approaching consent in the commercial photography world is to use a consent form, that photographer and model agree to and sign. These forms lay out the photographer’s intentions for using the work, where it will be published, the rights the model has over the images etc. In simple terms, the parties agree and that forms the basis for a legal position that covers the work. In the case of an event like Pride, a form isn’t at all practical, because of the number of people present and the potential style of the photography. It wouldn’t be limited to traditional portraiture, where the form works well, but include ‘street-style’ shots where the subjects were unaware of being photographed. Event photography consent is usually done in the inverse, where instead of seeking individual consent, everyone is made aware that photographs are being made, and that they must seek exemption to avoid being photographed. That works well in most cases, but Pride added another ethical consideration when thinking about consent. The event was being held in public place, rather than a private venue. In fact, the idea of a truly public space is a little bogus as most of the land in the UK is owned by someone. In the case of Priory Park, there weren’t any overarching photography restrictions in place, so it could be treated as public. The law in the UK (and in the US) currently states that a photographer can make images of other people in a public place without needing their consent. There are campaigns to add restrictions, to cover children, or other subjects that could be treated as in the national interest, and therefore vulnerable to acts of terror etc, but thusfar they aren’t in place. If someone asked me not to photograph them, I wouldn’t have to agree because I’m covered by law. If you think about it, that’s a pretty extreme defence as surely intention comes into play at some point. However, there are cases, such as the US lawsuit brought against Philip-lorca diCorcia following the publication of his Heads (2001) series that highlight the conflict between law and ethics when it comes to a person’s privacy. In that particular case, the law actually sided with artistic expression over violation of religious beliefs, but it still revolved around the plaintiff’s case that he did not give consent because of his beliefs. We think that we should have privacy rights, particularly when a camera is involved, whether we are in a private or public space, but that isn’t the case. When I was filmed entering the box junction, I hadn’t given the local authority my permission to point their camera at me. In fact, who among us has consented to being filmed by CCTV walking down the street? The belief in the right to privacy is a powerful one, and I am certainly not offering an opinion on it here. However, a belief isn’t the same as a legal responsibility. I encountered this recently when someone started aggressively lectured me on photographic consent in a similar situation to the upcoming Pride shoot. Her passion was admirable, but that was about it. This is, of course, where a photographers personal ethics comes in to play and in that case, I just kept quiet and let her rant. How I view privacy is driven by my both my personal ethical standards and my respect for the idea of it. I know how I would react to the intrusion of being photographed, so tend to treat people in the same way when it’s the other way around. That approach works with most of my work, and when it doesn’t, say in a street scene where there is no dialogue between me and my subject, I consider the ideas of representation and ‘doing no harm’. If I photograph someone, am I treating them respectfully in the context of the picture or the series? Will my publishing the image do them harm?
Early in in the Pride shoot, a lady approached me with her child and asked me not to shoot them. My instant response was to completely agree, try to put her at ease by assuring her that I would avoid where I could, but if they appeared in the background of a published image and I’d missed that in the edit, she should contact me (I gave her my card) and I would quickly remove it. This chat took less than a minute and she opened up about her reasons, which I totally understood. She went away trusting me to ‘do the right thing’. Another example resulted in the photograph below. I was drawn to this gentlemen’s shirt and went over to chat to him. We talked about how he felt how the event was going, the continued importance of Pride in the current climate, and the feeling of freedom that he felt as a gay man attending an event with others he could relate to. “People like me”, is how he put it. At the end of our conversation, I asked him for a portrait, something I was doing with anyone I got talking to. He did that ‘polite grimace face’ that instantly told me he wasn’t comfortable, which was followed by a respectful decline. I said that it was no problem and was about to reassure him that I wouldn’t include him in any other pictures etc, when he said “you said you loved my shirt, how about photographing just that?” I duly did so, showed him the image on the back of the camera, shook his hand and that was that.
Untitled, from Malvern Pride 2023, by Richard Fletcher
None of this is rocket science, it’s just exploring consent with the subject in a polite and respectful manner. That’s not to say that it ‘made me happy’, as I would have much preferred an actual portrait of him. It’s not pandering to a subject either, as documentary photographers generally can’t afford to lean entirely towards their wishes. If, for example, the subject belonged to an extreme political group or held controversial social beliefs, the photographer has a responsibility to represent the subject as honestly as possible, perhaps putting aside their own personal views. What’s important is to establish an open dialogue about intent, consider any harm to the subject, that they might not be inviting themselves in some way, and then be prepared for further discussion about the outcome. In this case, I could have sneakily grabbed a shot of the man without him knowing, but that image might have caused him difficulties elsewhere that I might not be aware of. I read the situation through talking, and more importantly listening, and elected to talk to him instead in the same way as I dealt with the concerned parent.
In conclusion, Pride was a huge success, and I believe my photographs represented the vibe on the day. I shot other images that I want to use for the documentary study, which will include other material sourced from the media and through interviews with members of the LGBTQ+ community, but more of that another time. The key learning from this experience though, was that ethical behaviour that drives dialogue between the photographer and subject, helps give the former a much broader understanding of the ‘story’ that they may have felt that they knew. My understanding of Pride is largely built on what my gay friends have told me, but I cannot ever truly empathise for the obvious reason. Working with my subjects helps me reconsider what I think I know, and incorporate new information from their personal experiences. I also learned that if we are behaving ethically, consent is a continual process where a subject might later reconsider how they feel about their representation in a body of work. Depending on the understanding or formal agreements in place, there may be a conversation long after publication, where they no longer consent. In the case of the street-style Pride images, someone might see themselves and decide that they no longer consent. In a world where people film everything from their food to a road rage altercation and post it social media, perhaps a pause for thought about “Should I?” instead of “Can I?” would improve our society in many ways. I’d like to think that it might.
You can see my Malvern Pride photographs at this address: https://www.richperspective.co.uk/p865073501
For more on Nussenzweig v. diCorcia, check out this article: https://museemagazine.com/features/2019/9/23/impact-philip-lorca-dicorcia-head-on
For more on ethics, take a look at the excellent Photography Ethics Centre here: https://www.photoethics.org