Man taking a nap. Near Sonagachi, Kolkata. West Bengal, India. © Matt Lemon Photography. All Rights Reserved.
Capturing Human Beings
Over the years, I’ve captured my fair share of photographs of human beings in public places, especially of children and blue or pink collar workers. When I took this photo, my American host in Kolkata strongly disapproved of it. As far as I remember he didn’t go into any details beyond telling me that he would have quite liked to hit the camera out of my hands if he had noticed me taking it, and while I would have quite disapproved of that, I admit I’ve since thought about that photo several times and even considered removing it from my blog. Eventually, I concluded it represented a borderline case, and at the very least, it doesn’t violate Indian law which stipulates that neither taking a picture of a person in a public space nor publishing it requires consent as long as it isn’t for commercial purposes. However, as Anurag Pareek and Arka Majumdar, two legal scholars from West Bengal, explain, photos that might embarrass or mentally traumatise those depicted in them are illegal under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution, and in their view, laws should strike a balance between people’s freedom of artistic expression and the need to preserve human dignity. And I would agree.
Where the sleeping man is concerned, I would argue that there are limitations to one’s expectation of privacy in a public space and I do not believe that my photo depicts him in an undignified manner or one that might embarrass or traumatise him. One could argue, however, that I couldn’t have known if he might have been homeless and thus unable to choose sleeping at a place where his privacy was more protected and I would have to admit that to be a possibility, although I believed him simply to have been a worker on a break, taking a short nap. Street photography featuring identifiable people is a tricky business, even more so if you factor in white privilege, which this short article won’t touch upon – but I recommend two other articles to think about the subject: The Lives Of Others by photographer Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa and The (Im)possibilities to Shoot as a White Photographer on the African Continent, a response by photographer Jan Hoek.