Is Anything Off-Limits for the Street Photographer?

A few years back, an enterprising student posted a blog that went viral on the Internet: “Shit My Photography Professor Says”. It had such gems in it as: “Don’t take pictures in graveyards. What are you even doing there?” and “Ugh. Just by looking around, I think none of you should procreate.”

Part of the joy of reading the blog was in trying to figure out the professor. He sometimes seemed inspired, at other times crazy. I didn’t always agree with him (I profoundly disagree with his idea that the photographer has to “hurt” the viewer) but I was certainly struck by his list of off-limit subjects.

“Didn’t I say no bums? This is someone who does not seem to share your white supremacist views.” And my No.1 favourite: “Don’t you dare go to Chinatown. Leave the f*****g Chinese alone.”

Did the professor have a point? Or was he being unnecessarily censorious if we bear in mind that students are just beginning to explore the world? It seems absurd to shut them off from half of it. Yes! Half of it!

No Fire Hydrants
Although the professor said: “You can photograph EVERYTHING,” he was quick to add: “Seriously, you can take photos of anything your little heart desires…except: homeless people, fire hydrants, old people, Chinese people, children, African Americans, street performers, Italians — and absolutely no nudity.”

I think I understand why the professor sees the world in these terms. He doesn’t think that art should be easy — and he’s right, up to a point. In the American context, a lot of the subjects in his off-limits list are sitting ducks. The Chinese trade mostly within Chinatown, street performers anchor themselves to one place for the day, and fire hydrants and gravestones are not going anywhere fast.

Most of these subjects are photogenic; all are easy to find; and few of them care if you snap them. But will they take you closer to becoming a photographic artist? Not in the professor’s view.

A privileged white student points an expensive camera at a sleeping black vagrant and the professor feels nothing but contempt for the student. But maybe the student’s intentions are honourable? Maybe he or she wants to show the plight of the homeless — a subject that’s often addressed by younger photographers.

I’m more open-minded than the professor. I would never talk down to students. I don’t have a political agenda. I don’t feel guilty about being white or owning a house. I once shared a rental with ten friendly Jamaicans and I love to take pictures in Bangkok’s Chinatown because it contains life, movement, colour, people of all ages — including old people and the occasional Indian.

Perhaps one reason why the professor warned his students away from certain subjects is that he wanted them to avoid clichés. Homeless people, Chinese traders, old people — too many photos of these subjects lack the spark of originality. They’ve almost become a commodity, like those uninspired stock photos that are used for illustrating newspaper articles. “Can you give me twenty old people, half a dozen homeless and couple of Chinese, please?” (This is not the professor speaking. It’s me trying to make a point.)

No Elderly People
My featured photo (at the top) is of an elderly person walking past Selfridges in London. I didn’t take it because he was old, but because he was stylish. In fact, I don’t think of old people as being “off limits.” You can’t, when you’re my age. If I listened to the professor I’d never be able to take a selfie!

So is any subject legitimately off-limits?

Yes. If, by taking a photograph, you collude with someone who’s doing evil — that’s off-limits. Why? Because you’re placing the viewer in the same position. You’re making the viewer collude in the evil.

So, professor, I guess you feel you belong to a society that oppresses homeless people and you don’t want to collude in their oppression. You have every right to take this view, but it’s not one to foist on other people. Within western societies there are many cultures and sub-cultures — in fact, so many that I think you can legitimately stand apart from “society” as a whole and view it dispassionately through a camera.

With the one exception I’ve stated, surely every subject is fair game?

2 thoughts on “Is Anything Off-Limits for the Street Photographer?

  1. In my view, you touched on the real reason then shied away to blame political correctness. He just wanted them to stop taking the easy shots we had all seen before. He could have said that overtly but he would still get students interpreting that as ‘Find a fresh way to photograph a homeless person being passed by rich people.’ Yes his rules would have cut out some genuine fresh ideas that happened to involve a Chinaman or street performer but what they photographed instead may have yielded better results overall. It is like telling your students to go take pictures composed centrally. It does not mean you disagree with offset subjects.

    • I agree he wanted students to stop taking the easy shots. The way he expressed it, as reported in the blog, was very cryptic. He certainly seemed to be placing many subjects strictly off-limits.

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