On privacy

The guilt I feel for invading people’s spaces with a camera.

Not on assignment. It’s different, on assignment. Because that is a job, with a clear-cut purpose. I get in there, and work.

But doing the same when I’m out shooting for myself? That’s another thing.

I was thinking about this when writing the last post about the barbershop. How it always feels like an invasion of privacy when I ask to photograph people and their private spaces for myself, when I have no project in mind. How surprised I am — after all these years of experiencing it over and over — when people don’t mind. And people a lot of people actually enjoy random strangers being interested in their lives.

I know in my head that most of us want to be seen and heard, but when presented with face-to-face evidence of people wanting me to see / hear them, I’m still struck dumb and find myself thinking “really?” I mean, who the hell am I that people care how I feel about it all?

Uncles running an old school motorcycle parts shop. Business was suffering long before Covid-19, from the proliferation of online retailers selling similar goods at lower prices. Singapore, November 2020.

I was raised in an intensely — almost defensively — private family, and my reflex is to think that everyone else is the same way. It taught me to curb my curiosity about everything and -one adeptly, because wanting to know about things was far too frequently unwelcome in my world. Don’t be so kay-poh, the elders / authority figures would admonish. Don’t be such a busybody.

And here’s the thing: in this day and age where almost everything ends up on the internet, frequently taken out of its proper context and stripped of compassion, a bit of paranoia isn’t bad. At all.

I see people misrepresented online a lot, by people who feel they’re entitled to do so, or haven’t tested their assumptions. I often wonder if I need to be inadvertently adding to the mess, despite my best intentions.

Reflections of the city. Singapore, November 2020.

But over the years I’ve gone out on shoots with photographers who have zero problems inviting themselves into random strangers’ homes, the back rooms of businesses and other closed off spaces, and have created beautiful stories together with the people they photograph. Photographers who have put the time into listening properly and working through assumptions and properly crafted a story. I want to do that. I hope I’ve done that through the years. And I’ll always want to do that.

So it’s a question of how to balance the thing I need to do, with the question possibly of exploiting someone’s openness, no matter how un-evil my own motivations. Especially when it comes to the fleeting nature of most street photography.

I haven’t found an answer, and probably never will. But this is part and parcel of being a photographer. Understanding where you fit into it all. Making the work you want to make, while respecting custom, and how your actions impact the life of each person involved.