Thursday, July 8, 2010

Vulnerable Populations

Today a woman who works at a group home where I've taken pictures asked me who I was and what I was doing, asked if I had formal consent from the people whose lives I was documenting in pictures. When I started taking pictures of the residents I didn't know who they were or where they lived because I met them elsewhere. The residents have freedom to go places and do things outside the home. When, after some time, I realized where they lived and what that implied I stopped and talked to some of the staff to find out if they were considered competent to give consent for use of the pictures and was told they were legally independent, could make these sorts of decisions themselves. Even so, I wondered if putting up pictures, even with formal consent, was o.k.. With or without permission, a photographer has to consider how those pictures might be used and what the consequences to the person might be. I struggle with the ethics of photography where it intersects with voyeurism, exploitation, and what Doug Dubois calls "slumming." I'm not sure exactly what he means by that word, but something about how I was taking pictures of people of a lower socioeconomic class, people I'd likely never be able to help or do anything for, simply enjoying the social interaction across class and race, made him challenge me to consider what I meant to accomplish.

Here are two recent examples: Mr. L, who I met today at the cemetery/park on Lodi Street. 

Mr. L told me bits of his life story: that he came from the Carolinas, never finished 7th grade, knew not to take things that weren't his, how he believes in the importance of education, how he go this particular tattoo.  He was drinking beer in the shade of a tall tree in the park on Lodi. He said I could take his picture, no problem. His friend of 25/30 years was having an argument with him and wanted no part in picture taking. He took off on his bicycle to have lunch with his woman. Mr. L said when he drinks he goes off his insulin. I don't have any way to verify any of the story he's told me. It all seems plausible, but for all I know he's confabulating. Drink lots of water, I told him, lots. He promised me he would. Should I post his picture here?  He seemed to feel o.k. about it, but I may never know how he really feels. Perhaps the consent needs to be reconsidered in the absence of  Milwaukee's Best. Will his woman see this and get mad at him, at me? 

The other character I met is a musician. He came in to John's shop to sell a computer he didn't want anymore. At least he needed the cash more than the machine.  I met while hanging out with John. John bought it and told him that rather than buying his stuff when he was hard up he'd just let him use the stoop out front to play music. He offered ten dollars an hour any time the man wanted, but it wasn't clear whether he'd take John up on the offer.  Should I post his picture here?  I'm blogging on thin ice.

The woman from the group home wants to see the blog, and wants a formal consent agreement, which I will do to satisfy her concerns.  She says it will protect me. Ultimately, I have to have to exercise judgment  beyond the letter of the consent. I don't want to abuse anyone. I'm interested in taking pictures of ordinary people, the undocumented people of our world, not exploiting them.

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