Can We Justify Ethics in Street Photography?

I would like to write about my reaction to what happened last week with Fujifilm and Mr Tatsuo Suzuki. I am personally very disappointed with how the situation evolved (like I am with most world situations today) and I’d like to share my two cents on the issue. 

As a travel photographer and instructor, I’m very often “shocked” by the attitude of some photographers I meet or witness on the streets of Asia. And I’ve already talked quite a bit about some of their “bad behaviors”; not to mention the – often lacking – “ethics of travel photography”. 

So ok, Mr Suzuki (a brilliant street photographer from Japan) seems to use a very aggressive technique to photograph people in the streets of Tokyo. But this doesn’t “offend” me at all. In fact, it shocks me much less than seeing a travel photographer pushing their subjects to the side, in order to “place” them in front of a nice background. 

The Story of Mr Suzuki

Japanese street photographer Tatsuo Suzuki was recently filmed in action, on the streets of Tokyo, for the launch of Fujifilm’s new camera: the X100V. This behind-the-scenes (BTS) video, of him shooting, received a very negative global reaction. The online world went mad, too – and a few days later, the video was removed from the launch. Plus, Suzuki himself was removed from the Fuji ambassador website. 

Why did people get so upset by his attitude? And the main question: should Fuji have stood behind their ambassador instead of instantly dropping him?! 

Consumers are weighing in. Consumers have power. So should a company follow its upset viewers? Or should it support its ambassadors? Isn’t it weird that a professional photography company, one that’s supposed to recognize the best of the best, instantly scrubs someone’s title as soon as people get upset?! 

Here’s What I Think…

I’m not a street photographer – so I don’t want to focus on that aspect of the situation. What I do wonder, however, is how come this man’s actions don’t shock me… whereas I’m regularly shocked by how some travel photographers act.

What do I feel is “right” about the Japanese photographer and “wrong” about the ethics (or lack thereof) of these travel photographers?

Well, I think it’s because Mr Suzuki wants to create an emotional reaction for the viewer. And one of the ways to do that is to create more interesting, personal work. 

To me, it’s very simple: if you’re a photographer and if you’d like to capture candid emotions on your subjects’ faces in the streets of Japan, there’s no other way to achieve this than by acting like Mr Suzuki. The act itself is pure, real and true. And the images that this process results in are true, too. Real. Suzuki adapts his shooting style to the situation, which leads to unique emotions and images. 

Here’s an online comment from the BTS video:

“This photographer is obnoxious and lacks ethics of consent”. 

All right, Fujifilm – but are you really going to pay heed to these comments, the ones that complain Suzuki didn’t receive consent before taking photos? They’re missing the very definition of street photography. The people behind them obviously don’t know what they’re talking about. And you Fuji, blindly listen to them before penalizing one of your own photographers? One of your own ambassadors?!

Street photography is about capturing candid (not staged or influenced) moments. On top of that, Mr Suzuki strives to capture unique emotions on his subjects’ faces in order to create a reaction among his viewers. 

A company like Fuji, who has been electing brand ambassadors like crazy all around the world for the past number of years, suddenly refuses to stand by them when faced with criticism. Why so scared?!

Of course, if someone doesn’t like Suzuki’s shooting style, fine! You can’t expect every single person on the planet to understand what other people do, especially in the world of art. Do I understand why a painter feels the need to poop paint on their canvas? No, I don’t – and still, I understand it’s what they want to do to create their own art. So I don’t mind. (And seriously, what do I know about poop painting, anyway? Why should I express my opinion online about poop painting, when I don’t know anything about it?!)

Maybe people believe they “know” photography because they take a lot of photos; now everyone carries a camera in their pockets. Well, sorry guys – but this doesn’t mean that you know about photography. I still meet pro-photographers telling me that street photography is simply taking portraits of old ladies on the streets! So how can you expect the average Joe to understand what Mr Suzuki does?

Fujifilm is wrong to react like this. 

Personally, I’m really disappointed by Fujifilm’s reaction. If people are upset when they see something, does that mean Fuji should try to please everyone? Just to avoid as many reactions as possible, or to please a mass of people that are too easily upset/shocked/offended. 

At the end of the day, photography is art. Creating unique and original artwork often implies pushing boundaries, making people get out of their comfort zones, making them feel uncomfortable, weird, shocked, etc… basically, creating emotions. And this is what Suzuki is doing… very well. That’s what bothers me about Fujifilm’s reaction because I believe they should stand behind their photographers. 

If they don’t, they’re doomed to join Canon and Nikon in the world of big companies that are adverse to change. 

The society we live in today tells us to admire ruthless, selfish, rich business people who are destroying the world to make as much profit for themselves. Or to worship stars because they get naked on social media. But when someone pushes the boundaries to create a unique and compelling work that captures real emotions, then people get upset. Fujifilm, please, stick to your original ideas. Support the best photographers and stand by them when some people get offended. Because you know how it is: there will always be people that get offended. 😉

Posted in

Etienne

Founder of Pics of Asia, Etienne is a teacher with a photography habit.

12 Comments

  1. Aron schuftan on February 20, 2020 at 11:00 am

    Well said…

  2. Ron Brindley on February 20, 2020 at 11:50 am

    Gidday Etienne,
    Firstly, like every business, Fuji is about making money and if they feel that an employee/representative’s behaviour/style/creative approach is threatening that basic function of business to make money they listen to their customers and react.
    Secondly, if the reactions this cameraman evokes are shock, fear, discomfort or annoyance from shoving his camera in the face of strangers then that is not a photograph that entertains me at all. Yes, it is different but looking at those shots evokes annoyance in me as well. I don’t see it as creative, I see it merely as confronting.

    There are two ways to see just about everything. EG Taking a shot of someone at distance with a long lens without their knowledge can be seen as a negative, but in reality it does not interrupt their day in any way, whereas approaching someone and making small talk with the sole objective of taking a photo does interrupt their day and begs the question, would you have stopped and made small talk if you didn’t have a camera with you? Both the distant photographer and the chatting close-up photographer can be seen as having valid approaches to photography or is one just stalking and the other just a pretence of friendship to get a shot.

    On a number of occasions I have experienced negativity in Australia and in France for simply possessing a camera such is the paranoia in some people in western countries but recently in Zimbabwe I was pleasantly surprised at the number of people who really want to be photographed. I’ll try my luck in Africa again.
    So ‘generally’ I shoot wildlife and flora in the West and people in third world countries. Either way I never want to evoke fear, anger or annoyance in a stranger just so that I can say my shots are different.
    By the way, I enjoy your emails. Be well, keep smiling !

    • chrisjscheller on February 20, 2020 at 4:54 pm

      Interesting perspective. Was just in Japan and discovered that all mobile phones cannot have the shutter sound turned off. On an iPhone you cannot turn it off as it it regionally coded based in the laws in Japan. So his style seems more appropriate for the situation as no one is being photographed “in secret” with a silent hidden camera or spied on with a telephoto lens like a wild animal. I think the police might want to talk to you if you are walking around Japan with a big lens. Its also a very fast paced society and everyone is always going.
      Just went through his Instagram. Some good stuff. I agree that Fujifilm over reacted.

  3. Mike Chesworth on February 21, 2020 at 11:41 am

    Hi Etienne – I read the story and watched the film. Agree with what you’ve said, and I think the approach shows a courageous style.

  4. Paul Godefroy on February 22, 2020 at 3:16 pm

    Today we live in a world that is overwhelmed by so called intelligent mobile phones handled by people who keep taking pictures of everything and everyone without people’s consent and nobody cares.

    Why should people care when you take pictures with a camera?

    That is the question.

  5. Richard C on April 18, 2020 at 5:19 pm

    in your post about the to stage or not to stage in travel photography you say “If you’d like to travel and photograph people in an ethical way, first start considering people as people, as equal to yourself. This means showing them respect, interacting with them, and – one of the most important aspects – giving them something back.”

    I think this applies to any form of photography not just travel. Mr Suziki’s method does not seem to follow any of the above principles and I have seen subsequent interviews where he says well i dont break any laws, which is hardly the point. He doesnt seem to care whether the person consents to their photo being taken. To justify his method by claiming it creates an emotional reaction for the viewer is elitist nonsense.

    If you want to apply your ethical test above, please be consistent.

    • Etienne on April 19, 2020 at 9:00 am

      I do not think we can easily compare travel and street photography in such ways. Travel photography first means Travel. This includes meeting people, showing them respect, etc.. While street photography is purely about capturing a moment in time. I do practice street photography in Hoi An and I am not interested to meet and talk to my subject then. I am just capturing a moment and walking away. You cannot do both types of photography in the same way. One is more “intrusive” or even “aggressive” than the other. But this is the way it has to be for people who want to capture raw moments. You also won’t consider your subject equal to yourself and showing them respect when doing wildlife photography. If you see what I mean. Different types of photography for different approaches.

      • Richard C on April 19, 2020 at 11:07 am

        I could not disagree more it’s about basic human decency, and respect. you can practice street photography without invading someone’s personal space. Their right to be treated with respect is not diminished because of your choice of phot style. It’s on for them to be made to feel uncomfortable for your “art”? How selfish and arrogant.

        • Etienne on April 20, 2020 at 9:07 am

          I understand your point of view Richard, and I respect it. But. Would anything interesting have ever be created without making some people uncomfortable? The first time Greek sculptors came up with a whole naked man or woman statue probably shocked some people. But making people feel uncomfortable is a way to push boundaries and come up with something new. I understand that our subjects shouldn’t be “paying the price” for our “Art” by having a camera stuck in their faces. But there is no physical harm done, and people usually forget about what happened in a few minutes. Some people will understand what street photographers do. Some people will be shocked and call for a better respect for their privacy. People do not agree, then we have a discussion, and things are interesting. It does not mean we have to all understand and agree. The beauty of Art!

          • Richard C on April 25, 2020 at 4:32 pm

            I agree that this is all about opinions and life would surely be very dull indeed if we all saw things through the same lens, but not agreeing is not the same as not understanding. I understand your argument, I just don’t share that point of view (and vice versa), for me it is the discussion that is interesting and whether it will reveal anything that might make us think bout or change our perspectives, that is how we all progress. If it does, great, if it doesn’t that’s also great.

            We should distinguish between shocking an audience and exploitation of the subject of a photo. I made no reference to the former, my points were about the feelings of the people who are the subjects of the photographs – whether they object to them being taken or used. The audience has a choice not to view the art if they do not like it, the subject confronted by a street photographer has had their choice removed, or worse ignored. I think that if a nude model objected to being photographed nude we would criticise a photographer who harassed them to do something they were not comfortable with. Why then is it ok to confront someone in the street who may not be a willing participant? If they clearly try to avoid the photo (as was the case with a number of Mr Suzuki’s subjects) is it ok to continue to try and take a photo?, if they are visibly distressed by the interaction is this ok to capture and use because it is a raw moment? Where is the boundary? The argument no physical harm is done and that the incident is quickly forgotten about is something that could equally be applied too many travel photo situations.

            The title of the post is “can we justify ethics in street photography?” respectfully, I would perhaps rephrase as ” can we justify a lack of ethics in street photography?” my view is no, there should be ethics for all photography. The nature and strength of those ethics will be different depending on genre, situation or context. My own view is that whether street or travel photography , as a general rule the subject deserves a basic level of respect for their feelings. The closer you are to the subject, the greater the duty of care to think about them. Provoking a reaction for your own consumption and benefit without respect for the feelings of the subject is the dictionary definition of exploitation https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/exploitation.

            As i say, merely my view and others may, and are free to feel differently. Vive la différence!



Leave a Comment