Walk the line: taboo subjects in street photography?


The story of Kenneth Jarecke’s 1991 photograph of an Iraqi soldier burnt to death in his truck has been widely reported. Differing editorial decisions in the US and Europe saw the photograph published by The Observer in the UK and Libération in France but, not by Time magazine or the Associated Press in the US. This is one of many such examples where particular images are deemed too politically or socially sensitive in relation to dominant public narratives.

For street photographers, this issue of self-censorship raises interesting personal questions. Primary among them being: In what ways does your personal identity and ethics affect what and how you photograph? Mary Ellen Mark put it this way:

“I think you reveal yourself by what you choose to photograph, but I prefer photographs that tell more about the subject… I think each photographer has a point of view and a way of looking at the world… that has to do with your subject matter and how you choose to present it. What’s interesting is letting people tell you about themselves in the picture”. [1]

Mark raises two very interesting points here.

Firstly, by drawing attention to choice of subject matter she raises the interesting question of whether we have boundaries around our vision that would, for example, deem some subjects to be out of bounds or even taboo.  Much as Jarecke’s image from Iraq was outside the bounds of acceptability for some US media outlets in 1991.  Do you always look for the happy faces, the comic juxtaposition or the graphic quality in an image or are you willing to take those images of the street that show their darker more challenging elements. That is to say, the kind of subject matter highlighted by Jacob Riis, Bert Hardy, Diane Arbus, Danny Lyons, Mary Ellen Mark and many others.

Secondly, she challenges us to escape our own identity in an attempt to reflect the reality of someone else’s. Of course, there is no way to completely suspend the self and depict someone else’s reality as they experience it. We can, however, expand our current identity by crossing its boundaries to share experiences with others living in very different contexts.  The resulting images, rather than being a pure reflection of the subject’s experience will be a modified version mediated by our presence. For our part, we have the images, but we are also changed and redefined in sometimes subtle, sometimes significant, ways as a result of our expanded experience.

Consider the following example drawn from a five year project I have been pursuing to document contemporary Vietnam (more portraits from the project are online here). This is an example of a subject that I would not normally point my camera at on the street.

I came across the scene below in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). It was 7.40 am and this mother and child were sat alone beside a busy thoroughfare in the centre of the city. I was immediately reminded of W. Eugene Smith’s Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath, Minamata, Japan 1972 (my all-time favourite photograph).

Given the physical appearance of the child, I wondered if he was one of the long term victims of Agent Orange spraying during the Vietnam war. I knew Cu Chi, twenty five miles outside Ho Chi Minh, was the area most heavily sprayed with the defoliant during the war. My heart went out to them (naturally).

I had my camera in my hand: What to do, take the image or respect their privacy and move on? I decided to move on. However, in the moment I had hesitated, the mother looked up at me and smiled. It changed my mind and I gestured if I could take a picture. She nodded her consent, closed her eyes and looked straight ahead. I thanked her in Vietnamese and left feeling very conflicted.

Image of mother and child, Saigon.

Mother and Child, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam 2014. © John Meehan 2014

Was I justified in taking this picture? Had I overstepped some mark? Visually, I find it a satisfying image. I can analyse it formally but feel uncomfortable/trivial doing so given the human story it depicts.  Perhaps this is what photojournalists experience regularly when covering challenging subjects as W Eugene Smith was with his famed Minamata project in the early 1970s.

This is an example of an image I like but it challenges me both in subject matter and my own relation to the people depicted.  Without the back story, it would appear to a viewer that I sneaked the shot and thereby infringed the subject’s privacy. The truth, as I have explained, was very different.

This image was a moment in time with powerful repercussions for the photographer. Such is the  power of photography as a personal journey.

Images and words © John Meehan 2014

[1] Quoted in Marianne Fulton’s essay accompanying the book Mary Ellen Mark: 25 Years. Essay available here.


2 thoughts on “Walk the line: taboo subjects in street photography?

  1. Pingback: Back to the Future of Creativity | Photo Theory Blog

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