This little essay is something I wrote back in December 2018, right after the events described. I didn’t have anywhere to publish it back then – writing it was just a way of working it all out. Given as I’m here to talk about my artistic practice, this blog seems like the right place.
I rarely celebrate my Birthday. It’s in December, too close to Christmas, and for a guy who’s spent his life around the stage, that’s no good – Christmas is a busy time for performers. Then come University I discovered that my birthday fell around the end of term. Great present sure, but everyone was packing up digs and catching trains. I partied a little harder for Christmas, or went out with a couple of friends, and called it good. My birthday doesn’t appear on my Facebook profile, and for my 30th I had dinner by myself in the office canteen and then went to the gym.
This year was a little different. I treated myself to a little mini break in London. Early train, hit a museum before check in at the hotel, quick siesta before dinner. I ate at a franchise sushi place and then, at eight pm on a rainy Saturday night with a gut full of sake, I decided I’d go up to Trafalgar Square and do a little night-time street photography.
I’m a compulsive photographer, and the son of a compulsive photographer. During an earlier part of my life when I interned at a theatre in New York, a few nights a week I’d walk a circuit around Times Square and Broadway, between fiftieth and thirty eighth street. I’d photograph a lot. Enough, in fact, to fill a book.
On my birthday night in London I got off the train at Charing Cross, intending to walk from there to Trafalgar Square, to Leicester Square, to Piccadilly Circus. I walked toward the exit at Charing Cross, heading for the stairs, and walked past a couple of guys in sleeping bags. Then another. And another. And at the last pair before the exit I did something I’ve never done before.
I dug some change out of my pocket – it can’t have been more than about a pound and twenty pence – dropped it into the cup, or hat, or whatever was on the floor. One of them thanked me. And, with my camera around my neck, I asked:
“Can I take your picture?”
He said yes. I took it. His friend was giving a thumbs up, I took his as well. We thanked each other. I walked on, up the stairs and into the night. Through Trafalgar Square, then past the National Portrait Gallery along to Leicester Square and through the Christmas market. I took a few shots of the lights, the crowds. Then, passing a doorway on Picadilly, I had the same interaction. Coins. Thanks. Request.
This chap’s response wasn’t clear. I asked again, and he assented, and I got a better picture this time. I strolled a bit more, came back by the same route, and caught the tube from Leicester Square to my hotel near Aldgate East.
During the walk back, I started to feel like an absolute bastard.
During the tube ride, I tried to work out why. I’ve photographed the homeless before – in fact the last picture I had exhibited was on that theme – and the book of pictures I took in New York has a chapter on the subject. And I’d had moral qualms then as well. In the commentary to the book, I stated that:
“I occasionally had a moral crises, in that I was pictorialising someone’s misery. But I was effectively sketching the view from my window, and it somehow seemed worse to pretend that this wasn’t there.”
And what’s more I meant it. So, why the issue now? Because time’s passed? Because I’m a visitor to London while I was a (non-resident alien) resident in New York? Because of that little interaction?
Initially the whole thing seemed very simple. I wanted to take a good picture – something impactful, which would awaken people to an issue. The subject wanted… well, probably somewhere warm and dry to sleep, a hot drink, and some knowledge of where his next meal would come from. But my change was welcome. So we had a transaction. I hired them for a sixtieth of a second.
Was I uneasy because I felt I was exploiting the person I’d pictured? This, I suspect, is getting close to the truth. I’ve taken the same kind of picture before, but inconspicuously and from a distance. I’d felt that contact would break the spell of street photography, and so like most good photographers I’d tried to blend into the foreground and remain inconspicuous. And I don’t recall any specific moral issues while doing so. But do I exploit someone more by snapping his picture like a zoo animal, rather than by approaching him with a little human contact, a few pennies, and a request that he could refuse? The images weren’t posed. Nothing changed in the person’s environment or positioning due to our little interaction. And if it had been posed would it matter? I’m not a journalist. There is no code of ethics at work here other than simple human decency, and I don’t represent a charity that might raise more funds from a more abject depiction. And there’s no legal issue. A street is a public place. If I wished to use the image taken on the tube (technically the property of Transport For London) for any commerical purpose then that might be an issue, but I didn’t so it isn’t. There is, thank Christ, no law prohibiting me from photographing a person in a public place (Yet).
There is, of course, another point which might not have been doing my sense of self worth any good. That was that unlike at other times of my life, I had something personal to gain from the image.
Back in 2015, when I was running around New York with a Nikon D80, I was working for my own amusement, mastering a new set of skills and pushing the edges of my comfort zone. Some of those pictures later went into a book which I sold to people for money (at the last count I believe I’ve sold six copies), but the concept of the book came later, and the pictures of homeless men and women were a part of it, not the whole. And while I exhibited a similar image in a gallery where it might have sold (it didn’t) I took the picture prior to the gallery’s call for entries.
Now however, in 2018, I’m enrolled on a Master’s Course in Fine Art, which I’m studying via the medium of photography. These images will form part of a portfolio, which at the conclusion of semester one I will present to my Professors. And the more impactful the image, the higher the mark I am then likely to receive. I therefore stand to gain personally from an impactful, even an abject image. Did I pay a small amount of money to someone with no other option, in a way that would enrich myself? Did I exploit the subjects of these images? Is that the reason for my feeling of low grade guilt?
We had our transaction. The potential guilt most likely comes down to the fact that the transaction seems so heavily weighted in my favor. Is it though? What has more value to us each individually? For me a couple of extra marks is a nice thing to have, but the mark itself is an intangible. If it’s the difference between a pass and a fail, well then that’s a big difference, but otherwise it’s a pretty small issue.
For the subject? Well, what can you get for a pound? Half a sandwich. A bottle of water. Things that might help, but things which would be quickly consumed. In my lighter moments I think of the cash getting him to a shelter, or hostel, but unfortunately I know the numbers on this. The number of rough sleepers who are male and basically able bodied is among the highest, because they are felt to be the least at risk and as a result there will always be someone ahead of them in the queue for any kind of help. Maybe that handful of change would help him on the trip, but it’s unlikely.
Do my personal feelings come into this?
Yes. When I started living in and visiting major cities, I very quickly found a way to make peace with the fact that I was walking past people less fortunate than me. I figured that if I gave money to someone on the street, I’d never know what it was spent on – food, booze, drugs, it was impossible to tell. And however much change you give away, there’ll always be another person on the next corner. So, I made a policy of not giving change away. I made donations to missions, charities, whoever else, and I knew that in some way I was helping someone. But I put all of that aside so that I’d have a willing subject for a photograph. The difference of changing an old behavior for a few seconds might seem pretty minor, and it is, but this is the subconscious mind we’re dealing with here. It doesn’t have to make sense.
I suspect what was going on here, is that on some level if you speak to someone there’s a connection. You recognise them, as Charles Dickens put it “as fellow passengers to the grave, not as some strange race of creatures bound on other journeys that don’t concern us”. They’re now your fellow man. For all that it’s easy to dismiss the homeless as drunks or drug users, and some are, they are also humans. And in these frankly desperate economic times what separates me from them is minute. I’m lucky enough to be basically healthy, and blessed with a supportive family. I’ve had the employment problems familiar to most people of my generation. I’ve had long periods out of work, and I’ve never held paid employment commensurate with my education. But even in the darkest times of my life I’ve had a roof over my head and food in my stomach. Still, when I see the vacant eyed stare of a man wrapped in a sleeping bag it’s easy to see myself behind those eyes. Perhaps it’s a glimpse of what I used to see in the mirror before I headed off to yet another job interview that led nowhere. Perhaps the transaction between us went deeper than I might have thought. And perhaps that is why I feel it goes against the grain to use their picture for my own gain.
Lastly, there is this. In an age of untold wealth, convenience and technology, it sickens me to my stomach that anyone should have to sleep in the street and beg for spare change. There are many problems in tackling this. Mental health has a lot to do with it, and it’s a fact that you cannot force anyone to engage with services if they do not wish to. But it’s also a fact that the number of people on the street is the highest it’s been in years. It’s a fact that poverty – even for those with a roof over their heads – is a constant in the lives of people today, as a past generation had to recognise cholera, starvation. I’ve looked at the streets with a photographer’s eye since I rediscovered my passion for the medium in 2013. In that time I have seen the problem get worse.
Can I use these images ethically? Yes, if the use to which I put it does no harm, and attempts to do something good. Can I use it to do something good? I can try. But I’ve tried before, publishing images in various places, and yet there are more people on the streets than ever. I will continue to include them in my work for as long as this issue remains, but in an era so de-sensitised to imagery of suffering and despair I doubt the good it will do. If I wanted to salve my conscience I’d put down the camera and start volunteering for Shelter, but I don’t doubt I’d feel the same sense of frustration then as I do now. But my picture might yet awake the same sense of nagging guilt, unease or anger in someone else that the experience did in me. What a man can’t accomplish, two people might. And from such acorns mighty oaks doth grow.
As a much younger man, I watched the late great George Melly performing at my local arts centre. One of the pieces was an old blues tune, “Underneath The Arches”, written when people slept under railway bridges during the great depression of the thirties. And George proclaimed that he keep on singing it until “Nobody is forced to sleep, against their will, in the streets of Britain”.
On that note, look to see more of these pictures from me.