Today I am offering a follow-up on a recent post where I shared my thoughts about shooting on the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver. The same day I posted that article I was contacted by Pacifica Photography, a studio that I work with from time to time, to teach a “street photography” tutorial – on the streets of Vancouver. Hmmm. Well this is a bit of a dilemma. “Street photography” and “Vancouver” immediately conjure up images of the Downtown Eastside, poverty, drug abuse and prostitution in a lot of people’s minds, including my student’s; with that perception relentlessly fed to us by the mainstream media, it’s no wonder. Well I can definitively tell you that the Downtown Eastside also has probably the strongest soul of any neighbourhood I’ve been to in Vancouver – and I’ve been to them all. But photographers don’t usually go to that neighbourhood to capture happiness and soul do they? Without getting into the why right now, I also previously warned photographers from venturing into the Downtown Eastside without first being invited. So we didn’t go there.
With that touchy area now off the table, we still need to be ethical in our approach to shooting people in public. So how do I do (and teach) street photography while remaining well within my own ethical comfort zone? As Carlos, one of our subjects today so simply put it: ask. Don’t be shy. Ask permission to take someone’s photo. If they say no, respect their wishes. If they say yes, shoot away. Think about it: how would you like it if you were minding your own business and then you noticed someone taking photos of you without asking first? Things are a little more gray when it comes to candids, sometimes described as “stolen” pictures because, well, they’re stolen, taken without permission – and may even be downright voyeuristic – which is or may be awfully close to exploitation. A rule of thumb I use is with regards to the context of the photo – for example, a person is holding their ears as a firetruck screams by, then that might be okay. But if you’re taking a candid photo of someone just because they look decrepit, down on their luck, emotionally distressed… or on the flip side perhaps you find a person attractive and photogenic – and if you’re doing this without their permission – then you’re venturing into the realm of voyeurism and exploitation. Do not exploit your subjects. Respect them.
Another form of exploitation happens when you take advantage of the reduced mental capacity of your subjects. Last week I was browsing the internet and came across a photograph that Google found – a photograph of a well-known neighbour on the Downtown Eastside – and it was clear that this person had given permission, or at least stopped long enough for the photographer to take their photo. It’s a safe bet that this person also suffers from mental illness. While it may seem that you have been given permission (or at least there has been no objection) to taking someone’s photo, they may not fully understand that their photo may end up at the top of the list when someone Googles “downtown eastside vancouver” – on display for the world to see, and for others to then further exploit (note that if someone is under the influence of alcohol or drugs they do not have adequate mental capacity). On the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, there are a lot of people who may not have the mental capacity to understand what their photo may be used for. Use your judgement. Be respectful. Trust your conscience. Your subjects are human beings, like you, like me.
So, what did we do today during our tutorial? Well, first of all we didn’t go to the Downtown Eastside. We weren’t invited and the area is just too exhausted from having photographers coming in, taking what they want, and leaving. Instead we went to Commercial Drive. And it was beautiful – the light was warm, the shadows long, the people happy and willing – because we asked – and didn’t exploit. Thanks Carlos. Thanks Darrell. I look forward to seeing you, and photographing you, again.
This was a lot of fun to shoot – and to experience. Two performances, one musical, and one audiovisual, in sequence, at dusk on September 20, in the heart of old Japantown, on the Downtown East Side of Vancouver. The evening began with “Drawing Line” by Mark Soo and John Korsrud (with musicians Evan Arntzen, Saul Berson, Michael Braverman, Bruce Freedman, Graham Ord, and Bill Runge) and finished with “Coastal Calls” by Shima Iuchi and Jean Routhier, an audiovisual expression on the top floor of the Japanese Language Hall with a 360 degree vista of the City of Vancouver.
Six saxophonists took their positions along a “line” that ran five city blocks. Once in position, they passed musical phrases back and forth for two 15 minute performances, filling the air with a pleasant departure from the traffic and industry that overwhelm that neighbourhood on any given weekday. In that short time I would have to run to five positions along the five block line, plus the roof of the Japanese Language Hall, to reach each musician and get the shot with enough time to go and cover the remaining locations. I had a few different approaches in mind to cover this event – but the light was falling off quickly, so I settled on using flash – even though I more often lean towards using only natural light. To give the photographs more drama I set the strobe up off-camera and triggered with my PocketWizards. I am pleased with the results, although if given more time and had I anticipated that the sun was going to drop out of the sky that quickly, hindsight has provided me with improvement ideas for “next time”, as always.
The second performance that evening was something quite different, and one that I would have to be much less visible for. In “Drawing Line”, I was firing off a flash at the musician for ten to thirty exposures. While certainly distracting for the musician, it was limited to five minutes before I would have to run off to photograph the next musician in the line. That performance, a musical one, was simply not affected. “Coastal Calls” on the other hand, had a large visual component that could not be interrupted with a strobing light – and that suited me fine. As a mentioned, I normally shoot with available light – it suits the unobtrusive documentary style that I have become so accustom to when photographing weddings and documentary films with sensitive subjects. So, off with the flash and dial up the ISO, or gain, for the videographers out there.
The Canon 5D MarkII performs remarkably well in low light. I shot most of the “Coastal Calls” at ISO3200 and applied Noise Ninja in post, although I don’t think it really needed the noise reduction. Shooting in low light normally requires a fast lens (I used the Canon 16-35 f2.8L) but this time the lens was chosen more for the super wide aesthetic it offers and less for its speed. The dynamic nature of “Drawing Line” and of the saxophone called for a dramatic look. The off camera flash, the super wide stretch at the edges of the lens, Dutch angles, and vibrant colours all contributed. I didn’t bother changing the lens for “Coastal Calls” later in the evening and found no reason to – it proved last night to be a very capable lens for both purposes.
For more information on Spatial Poetics VIII please visit the website of the Powell Street Festival Society.