Ethics of Attention Part 1
This is part 1 of a 3 part essay I’ve written called “The Ethics of Attention” in which I discuss ethical issues in photography.
The Ethics of Attention Part 1
In summer 2018 I walked down a street in Kington, New York and saw a flash a red—a white woman wearing a muumuu walking toward me. She stopped and turned, her attention suddenly elsewhere. I photographed her looking away, and then I kept walking. I know this because I went through my camera roll to study the sequence of events. That day I didn’t bring my camera on my walk, but by then I had trained myself to always have my phone ready for a decisive moment. A few steps past the curious woman in red I saw a barefoot middle-aged white woman with a brittle blonde ponytail standing in the street, shouting and stopping traffic. I took a photograph. After walking a few more steps I saw the cause of the commotion. A twenty-something white woman was slumped over the wheel of her car, passed out, a baby, alert, strapped into a car seat behind the driver’s seat. I took two photographs. Then the barefoot woman saw me and yelled at me. Until that moment I wasn’t conscious of what I was doing because in order to increase the probability of capturing spontaneous moments, photography had become an unconscious act. When I saw the woman slumped over her steering wheel, I assumed it was a drug overdose, and the barefoot woman confirmed this when she shouted at me for photographing it. She also told me she was a nurse and the urgency and resignation in her body language told me that this was not the first overdose she had witnessed.
I had seen a woman passed out, and instead of running into the street to help the other woman redirect traffic, I had taken a photograph. Once the woman yelled at me, I knew I had behaved poorly, but I was defensive. The same way I had quickly assessed that the woman in red, and the woman in the street were locals by their body language, and their ease in their surroundings, it was probably clear to them that I was not from around there. Nearly everyone I encountered in town was white and I’m mixed Asian, and the only other Asian people I saw worked at the local Chinese restaurant or the junk shop where I bought a camera cheaply because the owner didn’t know what she had. Looking back through my camera roll I see that this event happened across the street from the Trailways Bus station. Before shipping out to serve in the Navy during the war in Vietnam, my father, a white man, and a Bronx native, was hitchhiking, and was picked up by the police in Florida and dropped off at the Trailways station and told to get the hell out of town. I arrived in Kingston on the Trailways bus, and I knew it didn’t matter that I was raised working class, just being from New York City, and having that proximity to wealth, and the culture wealth engenders, made my voyeurism even more monstrous and exploitative to the locals.
When the woman yelled at me, I said I wasn’t the cause of the problem, and we were in public. When that flimsy excuse didn’t placate her, I said, “I’m a journalist.” This is not true, but I was embarrassed at having my voyeurism pointed out to me, and defensive; I wanted to match her authority as a nurse, with my own authority as a writer, and photographer. Except this wasn’t a news story and no one was paying me to walk down that street photographing this slow-motion tragedy.
I ran across the street and stood watching the scene from a distance. Police arrived and blocked the intersection. A big red truck stood stuck behind the passed-out woman’s car. The police revived the woman and she then sat on a stoop, guarded by one officer, while another officer held the baby in his arms. When I saw a green haired teenage girl cross the intersection, I raised my phone and took another photograph. The leading lines of the zebra crossing on the street pointed toward the triangle of the green haired teenager, the cluster of police, mother and child, and just a little further in the distance, the barefoot nurse, talking to a small group of bystanders, a big white cloud looming overhead.
As I walked away from the scene I wondered if the woman who had overdosed in her car would have been treated with such delicacy if she had not been white. It’s not that I didn’t believe she deserved compassion, it’s that I believe everyone deserves it, but it’s too often denied to non-white people in similar circumstances.
My body was electric with adrenaline from the hot embarrassment at being called out for my behavior, and the certainty that I had captured a compelling series of photographs, but as I walked back to my Air B-n-B I knew I couldn’t and wouldn’t publish the photographs.
Legally, since everything unfolded in public, I was within my rights to photograph the scene, but when it comes to questions of ethics like this, context and impact matters. I don’t photograph or post images of people who are compromised, whether through alcohol, drugs, mental illness, ability, or homelessness, but I justified photographing the scene because of the baby. If you’ve had an addicted parent, you understand the helplessness experienced by that baby strapped into its car seat, no way to escape the fated path its parent has led them down.
Maybe this is rationalization. My first instinct to photograph the scene came from excitement at stumbling on something raw, but also my horror. Despite my qualms, part of me was glad I had documented the baby’s experience, so no one could deny that this terrifying thing had happened to this child. An addicted parent often quells their shame by insisting on their child’s silence and by denying reality. The photographs I took were proof of this child’s reality, but my horror at the scene was no justification for my exposing the woman’s vulnerability and compromising her privacy.
When I photograph strangers head on, I ask their permission and consent. This woman was in no condition to give her consent. And we are so far into the epidemic of opioid addiction, we don’t need visual reminders of the perils and effects of addiction. Knowing that companies like Purdue purposely downplayed the addicting qualities of prescription opioids, aggressively marketed these drugs, and encouraged and rewarded doctors who over prescribed and wrote medically unnecessary prescriptions for these drugs, we need access to drug treatment, we need access to naloxone and the training to administer it, we need relief from the conditions that drive addiction, and we need justice for those who have lost family members to addiction more than we need visual reminders of addiction.
We’ve all seen photographs of people nodding out, but the mundane bureaucracy of the epidemic and the pages and pages of court documents that show how the Sackler family’s fortune was predicated on sustained opioid addictions don’t make compelling photographs. Wealth photographs cleanly; the worst visual sin wealth might commit is tackiness, but tackiness can withstand scorn in a way the squalor of drug addiction does not.
Sometimes your work succeeds technically and aesthetically but is a moral failure; maybe certain photographs are inherently moral failures because as Susan Sontag wrote, “Photographing is essentially an act of non-intervention.” In his essay, “Photographing Evil,” Robert Adams presents a similar conundrum experienced by W. Eugene Smith, and writes, “…we promise to ourselves never again to be so inhumane and manipulative. And like him we then discover that if we are to continue to make pictures we will continue to make patterns of disaster…” The work of an artist who engages with the public is not just to create, but to discern whether that work merits public consumption. Art without editing is self-regarding indulgence. If I had chosen to publish my photographs from that day in Kingston people might have felt empathy for the woman and her baby, or scorn, depending on how their internal compassion meters are calibrated, but other than that, they could not do anything to improve that woman’s life because empathy alone is impotent, and also because I could not provide any means for them to reach her, because I had not stopped to help her myself, instead I had taken her image and walked away.
Some people mistake criticism for censorship, but they’re not the same even if you mistake the sting of criticism for the muzzling of censorship. In the end, I didn’t publish the photographs because I couldn’t justify myself to the critic in my head. The images didn’t impart new information; they were merely tragic, so I kept the images private.
Sontag also wrote, “To take a picture is to have an interest in things as they are, in the status quo remaining unchanged (at least for as long as it takes to get a “good” picture), to be in complicity with whatever makes a subject interesting, worth photographing—including, when that is the interest, another person’s pain or misfortune.”
Anyone who’s ever said, “Hold that pose,” knows what she means, but there’s something else to it. Photography itself changes nothing. It records, and it might inspire emotion that spurs action, but that requires a lot of faith in humans to act when it’s so much easier to simply look and then look away. We do it all the time.
I chafe at moralizing and the tendency to scold and correct behavior on social media, so if I sound self righteous right now, it’s mostly a poor attempt to make up for not giving consideration before taking those photographs in the first place. At the end of the day you have to decide what you can live with and what you’ll answer for.
What is photography for? I don’t have an answer today, but if you’re interested in reading about what photography does, then I recommend Susan Sontag’s essay, “In Plato’s Cave”, from her book, On Photography, and Robert Adams’ book, Beauty in Photography.
And of course, photographer Nan Goldin has been vocal and active against the Sackler family and their part in the opioid epidemic.
Until next time…
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