Collaborative street photography

This semester, we’ve been working through principles derived from Luke Eric Lassiter’s Guide to Collaborative Ethnography as a way of working respectfully and carefully with family members.

Now we’re looking at how to take the principles of collaboration into relations with strangers in public, for the purposes of observing, photographing or recording people who are using screens (televisions or mobile phones) in public spaces.

This morning I had a conversation with David Blackall about the ethical issues involved in collaborative photography, and he told me the story of Australian photographer Stephen Dupont, with whom he has worked.

Here is David’s adaptation of the relevant section from Stephen Dupont’s thesis on his collaborative photography project, Why Am I A Marine?

The photographic works of Australian photographer Stephen Dupont, as artefacts, as journalism and as art, are collaborative ethnography. His The Afghanistan diaries, 1993 – 2012 and Why am I a Marine? represent photographic and diary practice of reporting on Afghanistan over the last twenty years. The Afghanistan diaries, 1993 – 2012 is a chronology, showing a selection of different forms of diary practice, both visual and narrative text, and should be regarded as collaborative as he works with the subjects before the lens. Similarly, the war diary, Why am I a Marine? is the product of collaboration between the author, embedded with the marines, and the marines as photographic subjects. Here, the war correspondent’s journal presents a new genre of photographic project. Polaroid photographs of marines were taped inside the journal and Dupont wrote on the adjacent page the question: “Why am I a Marine?” Each subject was allocated a page, to write an answer to this question.  

What transpired was unique and uninfluenced by censorship or the possibility of it. Their words are not only personal testimonies, saying something about the war in Afghanistan (and revealing their literacy standards), but also links to the private thoughts of youthful marines. The question initiated partial access to the psychological dimension of their fears, their longing for safety and for being home with loved ones. It also testifies to their relationship with the photographer.

Initially, the diaries were about documenting facts and ideas, and so were a form of journalism but they then transported journalistic practice to new areas. These war diaries represent a shift from the non-fiction narrative of journalism, as notes and referencing of photographs and video, of location and time, to the textual narratives of layout and design, of photography and art. Production is therefore relocated to the domains of gallery and books, which are art pieces by definition and practice.

Photojournalistic practice, with influences from the traditional school of the photo essayist and news photographer, becomes activism, delivering additional awareness to mainstream journalism and editorial practice. In turn, this reportage may prompt humanitarian responses from organizations like the International Monetary Fund, the United Nations and Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders).  

Activism reinvigorates journalism with increased artistic integrity, which may also serve an ethical imperative. Artist George Gittoes’s journals, which Ann Tucker describes as “a layered assault”, are an example of this:

“He regards these journals as the centre of his creative thinking and essential to his other artistic endeavours” (A Tucker 2012, 529).

War diaries therefore, in the context of this less traditional journalistic but more artistic methodology, enabled photographers such as Jim Goldberg, Danny Lyon and Peter Beard to use Polaroid film so that they could show images to their subjects immediately in an ethical response of informed consent:

“Jim Goldberg has given his sitters a voice in his art by asking them to write directly on the photograph something about themselves using their own language. The portraits are made with Polaroid materials so that he can immediately show them to his sitters and invite their participation. There are simple and direct images about horrific experiences. Goldberg uses these texts and materials to reject the myth of an objective photograph” (Tucker 2012, 528).

Goldberg’s activism particularly resonates with Why am I a Marine? as the stimulus of, and response to, instantaneous images that create a reaction from the subject. Collaboration between photographer and subject is central and enables powerful written personal statements by the subject in response to the photographer’s eye. Subjects are given copies to keep, taking journalism to another realm and legitimating the collaboration between photographer and subject. This collaboration enhances the connection retroactively and ethically (Dupont 2010, 50–55). The photo-documentarian then, in this context, is redefining photography as activism, resting on a foundation of moral responsibility, which in turn relies on the philosophical link between one’s professional calling and the relevant body of professional knowledge. This determines the way in which that profession’s service to others is delivered (Bayles 1989).

Tucker, Ann 2012. War/Photography: Images of Armed Conflict and its Aftermath. The Museum of Fine Arts Houston and Yale University Press.

Dupont, Stephen 2010. “Weapons Platoon”. Aperture Magazine, No. 199. Aperture Foundation.

Bayles, Michael 1989. Professional Ethics. Wadsworth Press. Belmont, CA

The importance to us here is to think about the relationship that you form with someone whose behaviour or practice you observe and report on in a public online space like a blog. It’s up to you to construct that relationship ethically and collaboratively, and to conduct yourself in a way that respects the dignity of the other person. Doing this will cause you to think about some of your assumptions about the nature of research findings, particularly in relation to whether an observation is authentic if the person being observed is staging their behaviour in some way because they are conscious of working with you.

Instead of thinking about what is lost by doing this, have a think about what is gained.

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