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. 😉

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Etienne

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

7 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.

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