11 Apr 2019

looking at me?

In vain I'm trying to control my collecting of books, in particular ones which reflect city street life, especially London, so I try to choose ones with an original take. I'm pleased to say Nigel Shafran's The People on the Street is one of those.  
Like a lot of great ideas, it's very simple. It's becoming more common to encounter homeless people on the street. For me they have no choice in the matter so I don't purposely take pictures with them as a subject, however in its own way that's ignoring their existence. There's already an argument that self censorship in this way will mean future generations won't have a record of children on the street so I like seeing projects where they can document their own lives. Following similar logic Shafran empowers homeless people by giving them a camera to take pictures not of themselves but of himself.
People on the street book cover
The resulting book is a powerful commentary on a societal responsibility but also, if it's not too indulgent, on documentary photography itself. There's an important debate about the best photographic practice in documenting people's lives all around the world which doesn't simply objectify them or worse. We're not now living in a time where Life or National Geographic ran photo stories of exotic other worlds, reinforcing stereotypes of difference, and yet that form of representation is hard to shake off. Homeless and, more broadly, other disadvantaged people occupy a similar status of otherness in this country today whether that's a kind of "by the grace of god" or "it's their own fault" attitude. It's worth mentioning two other current UK photography projects that directly address this, J A Mortram's Small Town Inertia and Paul Sng's Invisible Britain. Not worthy or patronising photographs. Work that's part of a broader context of social engagement and change. Inspirational stuff.

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