Citizen of the Month

the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

She Was Crossing the Street

She was crossing the street. She had short blond hair and was wearing black. She strutted like a hip, confident, young New Yorker that you might see in a magazine. She belonged here. As we passed each other in the crowd, I took a quick photo of her, part of an iconic city street scene, and published it on Instagram.

An hour later, a blogging friend sent me a message.

I know this woman. No shit. She works for me. And I showed her the photo!

My first reaction was one of extreme horror. Ever since I started posting photos on Instagram, the thought of this happening was my biggest nightmare. A stranger would find his own photo. And I would deserve the punishment that fit the crime, like a shoplifter or insider trader deserving time behind bars.

But my tale had a happy ending. The woman LIKED the photo, and we now follow each other on Instagram! Proof that either God is on my side, or that New Yorkers are so narcissistic they will take publicity any way they can get it.

Over the last two years, several of my friends have taken issue with the concept of taking photos of strangers in the street. People are always waiting for me to argue with them, waiting for me to cry, “But it is COMPLETELY LEGAL!,” and disappointed when I don’t take the bait. You see, I KNOW it is WRONG. If anything, you should applaud me for keeping on with it. In the past, my “Citizen of the Month” persona would have kicked in after the first negative comment and I would have stopped, but I’ve pushed on doing it, despite it, finding it possible to live with myself doing something morally ambiguous.

I’ve learned this from you. I’ve been blogging for almost nine years, and I have seen a lot of shit go on — blatant hypocrisy, backstabbing friends, questionable business practices, bullying of others, and snobbism. But after awhile, it all becomes part of the fabric of life. Small moral lapses are forgotten and we all focus on the real meaning of the internet — business, networking, branding, and finding success. Morality might get you into heaven, but it has little to do with business or art. From my experience, the more someone succeeds in any type of business, the more likely they were involved in compromises to their personal moral code.

In the scheme of things wrong, taking photos on the street is small potatoes. Personally, if I never did anything that pushed me into the gray area of my own personal morality, I would never leave my house, or have the nerve to type out the word “fucking” rather than “f***ing.” (see blog posts 2005-2010)

I’m pretty moralistic about most things, and I find it difficult to see myself in a negative light. (note to self: talk about this with therapist, when you find one)

About a month ago, I went to an “Instameet” downtown. An Instameet is like a “Tweet-up,” but involves those heavily into Instagram as a social media tool. I was nervous when I arrived at the agreed on location, because unlike like Blogher, where I am instantly recognized, I didn’t know anyone, or understand the hierarchy. And believe me, there is one — just like in any social gathering.

In attendance were a few “famous” New York Instagram street photographers, some who had thousands of followers and were always being asked by brands to do corporate promotional gigs. I was most excited to meet some guy known as “The King” of New York iPhone street photographers. I was curious to see him at work.

An Instameet is an odd animal. You all walk the street together, like a photo mob, taking shots, but since photography is a solo act, there wasn’t much socializing. From what I learned, that happens later, in a bar. During the walk, everyone is too busy hoping to one up the next guy.

I watched “The King” as he worked his magic with his iPhone, and suddenly — the concept of street photography made me uncomfortable. By watching him, it was like a mirror to my own actions when I shoot with my iPhone, and I wasn’t liking what I was seeing.

I’m a rather lazy street photographer. If I see something or someone interesting in my path, I might attempt a shot. But “The King” was proactive. He didn’t let Fate determine his art. He would eye someone across the street, and follow him. He would even walk around the block, circling back, just to face his subject, inches away. He seemed to enjoy the danger; but to me, it seemed like STALKING! I even hated the way “The King” viewed his subject — not like he was a humanistic individual seeking the personal in others — but as if he was a hunter searching for prey.

“What a jerk,” I thought to myself, annoyed that he was so beloved by the others. “What he’s doing is SO WRONG!”

His iPhoneography work is now showing in a gallery in Soho. Art/Morality? Does it matter?

I enjoyed taking photos of my friends at BlogHer. I wish I had more of an opportunity to do that here in New York. I wish I had a beautiful girlfriend or photogenic kids to take photos of during the weekend. But I don’t. So, I practice my photography by shooting strangers in the street. Maybe there is a bit of loneliness to it. I’d rather see it as a celebration of others. And I do it with a good heart. I try not to be a jerk. I don’t stalk people, even if it means it can get me a better shot. I try to find my own grey area.

You might think this post is about Instagram. But it’s not. I don’t need you to write comments telling me that you like my photos. Thank you if you do. This post is more about fighting the instinct to do everything RIGHT, and being OK being a little WRONG.

Perfect for right before Rosh Hashanah!

I’ll worry about my morality. You can worry about yours.

Note: This post is written for myself. And more dangerous than you think.

31 Comments

  1. Morality schmorality. The internet broke that down long ago. Keep doing what you do and I insist you publish a “coffee table” book of your photos. I’m broke but I would buy it because the work is superb.

  2. What people don’t think about, and what draws me to your photographs (and Lotus and countless others) is that you’re all amateur anthropologists in a way-cataloging the behaviors and activities of the human race in this era.

    If that’s wrong, I don’t ever want you to be right.

  3. I don’t typically take pictures of people I don’t know, but I love your photos. I think you get the balance.

  4. To me, the art of what you dobis in the candid nature of it. The 1/16th of a second of someone’s life. If you plot, stalk, and manipulate that like this so-called King, it becomes something different, and that doesn’t appeal to me.

    • The thing is, photography is at its heart manipulative. You would never know he stalked his subject. You would just know it is a good shot. You cannot tell anything about a person’s morality from art, photography, or even writing. It is a product of the person, not the person.

  5. Yes, but what does your penis think?

  6. Some time ago I started taking pictures of people in Austin, and set up a “Humans of Austin” FB page, with a nod to the “Humans of NY” project, which I so admire. I try to talk to the person(s) I’ve photographed (generally before I take the photo), and add a comment about them when I post the photo. I *always* honor anyone who doesn’t wish to have their photo published. The shame comes in my not sticking with a hobby I love.

    https://www.facebook.com/HumansOfAustin

    • I assume that in those Humans of NY type sites, they always ask for permission, being that they are official photography sites online, and not “social media” outlets where the rules seem a lot freer. I RARELY put any photos of people on my blog, without permission — because it has a different feel — and I would not sell a photo of anyone unless it either a crowd scene or if the person was hidden in shadows.

      • It brings up a very interesting question about art and permission. I don’t believe every subject of modern art has given permission to the artist, so I wonder about the publications. Hmmm…. The same is probably true for centuries-old art. I’m confident there are many paintings in museums with subjects who were none-the-wiser.

        Also, I forgot to mention, I consider you an artist in both written and photographic mediums. I am always inspired by your work.

        • The permission, at least in NYC, is a legal thing, too. It is legal to take photos of people or places or animals in a public setting if you do not make money off the photos. Once money is involved you should get the release form to keep yourself safe. That’s, I’m sure, why HONY asks everyone for permission.

  7. It is manipulation, and I’d already considered that you probably couldn’t tell he does that, but if I’d been a fan of his, I probably wouldn’t be upon learning that. Same with your photography. Lol.

  8. Having photo walked with you, I feel qualified to say you get it right. In photography and as a person.

  9. My first career was as a journalist and I studied media law and photography in college. I don’t have ethical problems with street photography, and I don’t really have problems with someone who puts themselves in position relative to a subject to get the perfect shot. That’s just art.

    That said, I seldom photograph strangers, except at music festivals, where people agree to photography when they buy a ticket to the event. My personal rule for those rare occasions when I do photograph people is that I won’t disrupt their experience of a moment, and I won’t ever post a photo with a snarky comment, caption, or text that disrespects the subject of the photo. I hate the People of Wal-Mart site and I’m even uncomfortable with Awkward Family Photos. They feel unkind and mean-spirited to me.

  10. I admire your bravado to snag pics of strangers. I know I’ve mentioned it before. Kudos to you for feeling self-confident enough to do so. I admire it even more now knowing you respect other people’s privacy as you do this.

    I’ve had SO MANY awesome opportunities to get great real pics of real people in Mexico, but have ever so rarely dared take any. I always feel like an intruder. However, I do promise myself that the next time I walk over a child laying on the ground across the entrance to a tienda I will snap away. (They do that a lot, it’s like their thing…)

    Morality? Personally, I believe asking for permission is best. But then that blows the picture because people tend to pose when they know they’re being photographed. It’s when they’re not posing that the image has more raw truth to it.

  11. Bill Cunningham has made a life out of his images of street fashion. It is the public. If you followed them into a building, that would seem wrong, but out in the world, people are fair game for a camera.

  12. I just wish I knew how you did it – and did it so effectively and with such amazing results – without being noticed. I always feel so self-conscious when I’m taking photos in public, like everyone is assuming I’m taking a photo of them. I need to get past that.

  13. Neil,
    You know I love a good 3-hour philosophical conversation/debate about ethics. In this case, though, I’m having a hard time following the logic, or even pinpointing the logic you have used in determining how the act of photographing random strangers somehow violates moral code. It’s not as if you are exploiting human suffering or trauma; misrepresenting or maliciously defaming individuals.

    And I don’t buy the whole “photography is manipulative” thing. If you are to be faulted for anything, might I suggest that you give the photographer much-too-much agency—and give your audience much-too-little credit. What you *think* we see, and what we *really* see are like little rumored secrets that get changed with every new whisper.

    Dangerous post? You need to work this out—your guilt will get in the way. ox

    • Well maybe the issue is not so much the photography, but that I usually do it in a manner that hides the fact that I am doing it. If I had a Nikon DSLR, the world would know what I’m doing. But I try hard NOT to be seen, so there is a bit of cowardice involved, that seems iffy morally.

    • And maybe there is a fine line between being ok taking a photo of some woman crossing the street and someone being ok putting a camera in a woman’s dressing room. When does the idea of privacy begin and end?

      • I don’t think the line is that fine, honestly. Isn’t the legal reasoning usually that it’s fine to photograph people in public, unless they’re someplace where they have a reasonable expectation of privacy”? A sidewalk is fully public. If you start sneaking photos up women’s skirts under the stairs or sneaking into dressing rooms, then yeah that’s clearly in the wrong. So, you know, don’t do that.

  14. Here’s the thing, you make the strangers you shoot look good.
    Better than a lot of people when they try to honestly take a picture of themselves or of someone else who is conscious of their photo being taken.
    Candid is always best, it shows the humaness of people.
    I’ve wished for a long time that I had more strangers to shoot, but Indiana is a small place and I have these kids…we shoot what we are given.
    And you’ve been given a gift so keep on keeping on.

    • So true about kids. I was babysitting my friend’s kids last week and I took them out for dinner, and the first thing I realized was that I had to constantly watch that they didn’t get lost or run over, so it really cut into my Instagram time!

  15. Huh. I’ve always trusted moral ambiguity. Sometimes I wonder if I have a streak of amorality in me, and then I realize it’s probably just self-aggrandizement or fear.

  16. I’m worried about the king reading this post and banning you from the streets of NYC.

  17. Also, I’m now in love with Duane’s brains. I wish you’d taken more pictures of her because yes you do get to the core of your subjects somehow more than the other street photogs.

  18. I read every word, but what I had hoped for was, were the King’s photos all that? I know you said he had them on exhibit but was it a peer pressure exhibit b/c people say he’s good, or is his work good, Neil?

    You’ll tell the truth.

  19. I am in favor of looking for gray area. Good for you for searching.

  20. It never occurred to me to worry about the morality of taking candid shots. I’m always just terrified that someone will yell at me.

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