Street photography in Pakistan is a vibrant and joyous occupation for a hundred different reasons. It has face blazing criticism, occasional legal and ethical backlashes, besides stirring debates on public television and social media. Most street photography operates on the borderline between intrusion and observation. Even more problematic is the tradition of clandestine photography. The great Walker Evan took a whole series of provocative photographs with a concealed camera on New York subways.
Is street photography, an intrusion on someone’s personal space that is the question? Can anyone claim privacy in a public space? Laws vary in different countries. There is a need to be aware of laws for those interested in documentary photography involving images shot on public places.
Photography, as always, has lot of grey areas, where ethical concerns are involved. Is any image of human misery and poverty an insult to human dignity? Should we present only a happy face of society? An old man dragging a heavy load, a rag picker boy sifting through trash, do these pictures attempt to exploit human misery for self-promotion? Is showing social hypocrisy in a photograph is a breach of social rights?
Art should not be judgemental, but it is often perceived that way. Sometimes it is the viewers who interpret an image through the haze of their own understanding and that their redemption is to put the ‘blame on the boogie’—the artist. Naked children sitting on the trash, addicts lying on the pavements, or a physically disabled persons begging around the market are reality of our lives as much as hunger and war. It is not something to be pushed under the carpet and pretend that if it does not exist in images, it does not exist at all.
Famous street photographer Eric Kim says, ‘as a photographer, I see myself as a sociologist with a camera as my research tool to observe and record the people and world around me’. It reminds me of Pulitzer Prize winning photojournalist, Stanley Forman and his shot ‘The soiling of old glory’. The picture stirred great emotions when it was posted. A censor on such art would seriously hamper the growth of artistic expression and its potential to create a tolerant and enlightened society.
Umair Ghani once commenting on one of my street images, ‘Commerce and Art play a tug of war with Faith and provoke greater conflicts and challenges for those who consciously focus on such concerns. These trends affect everyday life and our understanding of it. Some societies have learnt to sustain that shock; others are too fragile to come to terms with this recent awareness’.
An elderly bearded owner of a boutique, trying to cover his face to avoid the offence of being photographed while standing with mannequins wearing sleeveless low neck dress is a social satire on our confused moral and religious criteria. Images of women covered in shuttlecock veils shopping in posh markets with explicit advertising contents show challenges presented to prevailing cultural trends in our society. Such images do not stab our cultural façade, but helps us document our bleeding wounds of social confusion and to some extent stitch and heal them. This is serious level of street photography. It is above ridicule or criticism; It is a commentary and interpretation.
Furthermore, street photography is a contested sphere in which all our collective anxieties converge. terrorism, paedophilia, intrusion and surveillance. Even an attempt to capture the culture of marginalized sections of society is seen by some as a potential threat to ideology of Pakistan with a threat of creating fissures in society.
The photography codes of ethics from the US National Press Photographers Association have some solid points and guidelines. Now is the time to address this pressing need to discuss and review those points within our own legal and cultural parameters’