Don’t smile, don’t panic

I’m working on this project to get more street photos into Wikipedia, and for some reason I let myself actually be scared by the questionable politics of leftist blogs like BoingBoing and Making Light. When it comes to politics these sites are the left’s alternative to the right wing letters to the editor and e-mail forwards that TNH herself talks about. They both have the effect of painting a skewed picture of the world.

And according to these mantras on my side of the political spectrum the post-9/11 world is filled with Nazis on every street corner who will stop you from every constitutional right you have, including the right to take photos.

One of the first things I did while planning this thing was therefore to try and imagine every legal road block I might come across, to see what could and what should be avoided. That makes sense for copyright, because copyright lasts so long. But should I worry about other things than the right to publish? After a few days I realized a person can get too paranoid. Look at the evidence. The world abounds with photos taken on the street; would this really be possible if the streets were patrolled day and night by the cronies of the authoritarian set?

One way to get in trouble though, I imagined, would be to look like you’re doing something wrong while taking pictures. If you sneak around like a spy or a pervert, people are going to treat you like one. And I imagined that it would be best to be the friendly photographer, to smile and make eye contact with the people you are going to photograph. Once again I let fear do the reasoning for me. As it turns out, being in the subject’s face is good enough. I should have remembered Wikipedia’s mantra: be bold!

Brooklyn photographer Bruce Gilden actually tries to capture the expression of dismay or surprise or disdain that people get when they realize he’s going to take their picture. He considers a photo spoiled if a smile is his response.


Screenshots from the WNYC piece on Gilden.

Update: one of the commenters at the WNYC blog said it even better: be yourself. (Unless you are a spy or a pervert.)

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