PetaPixel

Rant: I’m Tired of ‘White Guy Photography’ Projects

streetphotog

This post is prompted by, but not exactly about, the Humans of New York project/phenomenon (Side Note: This is not an anti-HONY rant. If anything, HONY is merely the straw which broke the camel’s back).

I’ve been aware of HONY for a while as it’s been gathering steam and it’s never interested me. I’ve skimmed it a few times but each time I do, I have a gut-level reaction to it as “just another white guy photographing New York.”

It took me a while to confirm that that was indeed my reaction to the project.

Thinking about it more, I’m realizing that it’s my reaction to a lot of photographic projects. Not just in New York but in general. I’m allergic to “white guy photography.”

This is distinct from photography by white guys. What I’m having problems with is the approach which entails traveling, or moving, someplace with the intent of documenting and photographing so as to “explain” or “capture” it for others. And the amount of privilege required to start such a project and make those kinds of claims is generally limited to (but not exclusively the domain of) white guys.

humansofnyc1

As much as this is a time-honored approach, I’m done with it.

I grew up looking forward to each new issue of National Geographic. The photography was great and it was a fantastic way to learn about the world. At the same time, even as a kid, I was aware of the colonial viewpoint in how it depicted different cultures, bodies, etc.

(Side Note: This is not an anti-National Geographic rant either. That magazine is responsible for a lot of my visual education and it’s still a source of excellent photography. At the same time, I’ve come to realize its limitations, especially when the photos are decoupled from the articles.)

As a child of the 80s, I got to watch its viewpoint shift from the exotic abroad to focus more on the US. In some ways this must have been an interesting editorial shift as it applied the colonial view to ourselves. However, since a lot of those features were on American cities, I can’t help but think that the result has been to view our cities, especially the poor, majority-minority ones as being dangerous or exotic.

But this was all in the 1980s. To see the same approach taken toward non-white or non-mainstream cultures now feels old and stale. And with almost everyone having the tools to document and represent themselves now, it starts treading into self-serving, patronizing, white-guilt behavior too.

The colonial view doesn’t work for me anymore. At its best, I find it boring. At its worst, I find it racist. In almost all cases I’m tired of it.

humansnyc_mini

I’m tired of the outsider view which treats cities as urban jungles full of diversity which have to be tamed. I’m tired of the idea that you can just drive through a culture snapping photos and claim to be presenting it to the rest of us. I’m tired of the idea that non-white or native people are exotic objects. I’m tired of the lack of context which results in the photos providing little to no information about the actual culture being depicted.

I’m tired of the way that, even today, so many westerners gush about this kind of photography.

I’m tired of the way that so many people still aspire to create this kind of photography.

We’ve already reached the point where most everything has been photographed. If our goal is to increase the sophistication with which we photograph, a large part of this has to include how we approach and view other cultures.

Which means that this rant in many ways is the other side of the blinders coin. So many of us only see—without realizing it—the white-male perspective that we’ve come to believe that that perspective is what photography is. We need to do better, whether it’s showing how other cultures are representing themselves or explaining why we’re bored of certain points of view.


About the author: Nick Vossbrink is a photographer based out of the San Francisco Bay area. He likes to say that his style is shoot first, make sense of it later; using his camera to take ‘notes’ of what he sees and then looking back at those notes to search for patterns. You can follow him on his website and blog. This article originally appeared here. Given the massive amount of attention the post has received, a followup has already been published here.


Image credit: People Photographing People Photographing People by See-ming Lee 李思明 SML


 
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  • Scott M.

    Guess we can call them “add traffic trolls”-some are quite sophisticated. Must be a secret option from Disqus. Either that or the actual trolls know how to hack it. Either way, some are pretty clever.
    I may be totally wrong, but it makes sense.

  • David

    That’s one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever read. So “outsider” photography is bad because I’m projecting my colonialism onto the subjects? Am I only supposed to take photos where I belong? And where do I belong exactly? America? New York? zip code 10003? What ever happened to simply documenting and celebrating that which moves us? To steal a phrase, sometimes a photograph is just a photograph.

  • john_m_flores

    RANT: I’m tired of “White guy rants.”

  • Fullstop

    A desperate attempt to be controversial while at the same time taking aim at an all too easy subject: “white people”.

  • Bear In Ushanka

    What is really racist are the articles like this one.

  • eatkin

    crinkly faced old men in turbans, dirty faced moist eyed children, I know what you mean. And those fricking sand caves in Arizona or where ever they are.. enough already.

  • Ralph

    The perspective of the photographer always shines through in his/her photography (arguably, sometimes that’s the point.) And from the normal white guy’s perspective, a normal white guy is not very interesting.

    Everything that differs from what you are used to is more interesting. That’s why asians photograph things that are mundane to us when they are in the west, just like westerners photograph things that are mundane to asians when they are in the east. So it’s not weird that people take pictures of what’s ‘exotic’ to them. But it’s not just homeless people, what about ridiculously rich people? That’s an interesting subject as well if you are not ridiculously rich :P

    The Other is partly unknown to you, and the unknown makes you curious and inspired. So it’s pretty logical. If there’s any quality to the pictures you make because of it is a different discussion.

  • PeterTheta

    “Too many cameras and not enough food / this is what we’ve seen”

  • Kevin

    Things that are not familiar in the everyday life of white people are interesting to white people who are not exposed to such things. This article might as well be called, I’m tired of street photography.

    I do agree with some points. The HONY project is pretty bland.

    In the end If a photographer enjoys his craft and the results of his craft, who cares what other people think about it? Unless they are trying to make money off their photos.

  • Kiltedbear

    This commentary, which is really what it is, strikes me not so much as an issue with photography he is ranting about, but an issue with the observer himself, Nick. He rants about “exotic objects” and how it’s racist. All of photography is about capturing what is visually interesting and impactful. If what our culture deems exotic and visually interesting for many happens to be minority cultures and races which many may not be familiar with, then how do you counter that? I would even go so far and say it is not up to the photographer to TRY and counter that. Yes, they use their skills and art to capture GOOD photographs, but they hardly define what culture sees as interesting.

    Nick says it himself when he says, “We’ve already reached the point where most everything has been photographed. If our goal is to increase the sophistication with which we photograph, a large part of this has to include how we approach and view other cultures.” It seems to me that either Nick is tired of racism in general and it is bleeding into his work, which I could understand to a degree, or Nick just simply needs to take a break from Photography for a while or just isolate himself to the styles he likes. I do not in any way consider this a reasonable rant. He’s certainly free to his opinion, but it just seems like he’s tired about what he considers cliched photography.

  • Saint Peter

    What I’m rather tired of is that racism towards whites is considered acceptable. It’s not acceptable, and I’ll call it out when I see it, read it, or hear it. If there’s any criticism to be made that I do agree with, it’s that the same privacy laws and ethics should apply when photographing “ethnic” or “developing world” subjects as “back home”. I do, however, challenge to the core the notion that someone must necessarily lack in sensitivity or empathy once they step outside their own culture. Yes, it’s a possible failing, and it’s been done many times. But it’s not a foregone conclusion, and so to condemn travel or street photography of a certain kind and create an association with a certain ethnicity is as flawed as the approach you are trying to criticise. I’ve lived embedded in several foreign cultures for several years each, in some cases to the point of passing as native, and let me tell you something about blinders: We’ve all got them. Let me also relate what I’ve been personally getting tired of lately: People who feel they need to out themselves as righteous individuals by pandering to perceivedly politically correct self admonishment, thereby reinforcing from their armchairs the exact racial divides that many of us in the field are working hard to get rid of. In fact, I don’t care if you’re doing it from your armchair or you consider yourself to have experience in the field. Just stop doing it because it’s not helpful to anybody. One love. Live it now.

  • Banan Tarr

    Stop making sense, it doesn’t jive with the article.

  • Chester A. Arthur

    I don’t think we necessarily disagree with all that much as I wasn’t trying to make a blanket statement. I wasn’t trying to assign the label of racism or Orientalism to anything in specific. I was just talking about how some photography can be exercises in a certain form of racism, stereotyping, Orientalism, etc.

    And you bring up a good point in how the internalization of biased vision can occur within photographers of all kinds of backgrounds. It’s an interesting question: what’s the difference between a Caucasian American photographer taking pictures of elderly Chinese practicing tai chi in a Beijing park and a Chinese photographer taking pictures of American cowboys on a Montana ranch?

    Mainly, I was just saying these are interesting questions, and not trying to advance any particular answer to those questions.

    Consider what image comes to mind when you see the word “Masai.” I think virtually all of us would envision an image that would be incredibly consistent. And while I don’t know how many Masai are living traditional pastoral life and wear traditional garb versus those who may live sedentary urban existence in “modern” clothing, I imagine there’s more variance to reality than is represented in the totality of photographs depicting “Masai people.”

    But, again, I’m not saying that taking a picture of a Masai person in the stereotypical “Masai warrior” garb is a racist act. But it’s an interesting thing to ponder the degree to which one might, in doing so, be taking a picture that represents reality and how much one is taking a picture that is reflective of one’s perception of reality and which also reinforces that perception for everyone who will view one’s picture.

    I don’t think there’s a univerally applicable answer to any of this. It’s just an interesting conundrum to chew on.

  • Jude S-R

    I appreciate your right to give your opinion, but I find that opinion lame. Its not ‘white guy’s’ mentality. That’s the most racist thing I’ve seen said here so far. It is, in fact, the ‘easy’ mentality. Its EASY to shoot what you’re talking about in the way its shot, so they do it.

    Has nothing to do with being white, and everything to do with people not delving into their subjects. It is, in fact, the EXACT difference between these type of shots and National Geographic coverage.

    So, in essence, what you’re really saying is “I dislike cliche photos that only touch the surface.” Well, bravo, old boy, we all do. Nothing new here but a ‘catchy’ name on the article.

  • bbr

    The viewing audience is not only much larger now (than when photography was limited to the fortunate few who could afford to participate), they are less keen to a lack of originality; and, when one person’s photography enlightens a less keen photographer, they’re often inspired to create similar projects. Seems like there is enough viewing audience attention to go around for all photographers, both experienced & amatuer.

  • Saint Peter

    And a racist one. Which makes it dumb, indeed.

  • http://www.peterblaise.com/ peterblaise

    .
    Whadya’ mean?

    ;-)
    .

  • http://www.peterblaise.com/ peterblaise

    .
    No, “white guy photographer” is lumping together using shallow and naive criteria that is none of anyone else’s business.

    Now, what stories are compelling to the photographer, and what stories are compelling to the audience?

    Oh, never mind, let’s carp about each other instead, and keep it superficial:

    Don’t you hate Canon/Nikon shooters who think [P] mode means “professional”?
    .

  • http://www.peterblaise.com/ peterblaise

    .
    Which end?
    .

  • http://www.peterblaise.com/ peterblaise

    .

    Christian DeBaun wrote, “… I think Mr. Vossbrink needs to go out and photograph some people (or try some street photography with people in them) before he passes judgement on the work of other photographers …”

    And then NOT pass judgement on the work of other photographers.

    .

  • Tamar

    Thank you for this.

  • Jesse

    Sounds like you live in Perth, Australia.

  • David Travis

    Just read Susan Sontag and call in the morning.

  • BobD

    Photographers most often seem to miss the point that it is their own world they know and have a relationship with. This is what they should be photographing. You don’t have to leave home to make good photographs.

  • xerocky

    Not irony, but hypocrisy.

  • xerocky

    It’s a melting pot with very large chunks of whatever that refuse to melt. Greenpoint is and will be Polish, Williamsburg still Jewish, Bed Stuy still black, and if any of that changes, people like the author will winge about gentrification. Not really a melting pot, really it’s just a hipster hang out, until the wife wants kids. The author is tired of whie people taking pictures of where they live, if they happen to live around black people. I know, how dare they?

  • xerocky

    Is there a prohibition against black or brown or yellow people buying cameras?

  • xerocky

    I think your attitude about it is worse for them then the conditions in whicy they live.

  • xerocky

    “Day in, day out, I struggle, and fail, to find something, anything, interesting to photograph.”

  • http://reciprocity-failure.blogspot.com/ Stan B.

    Already responded to this.

  • xerocky

    Nobody thinks black people are exotic.

  • http://www.bobcooleyphoto.com/ bob cooley

    Huh? you must have read a different article. No where does the author even come close to discussing gentrification. Sounds like a chip on your shoulder, not his.

    Williamsburg is Jewish if you are south of Broadway, but it has a very heavy Italian and latin (PR, DR, and Salvadoran) population. I’ve had 4 apartments in billburg, in the 90s before it became condo city.

    Greenpoint certainly has a strong Polish community, but also Irish, Hungarian and German (My great grandfather, gr. grandmother and my grandparents, all Germans and Irish met and lived in Greenpoint in the 20s).

    And Manhattan – tell me Manhattan isn’t a melting pot…

    You seem to be raging at something, nothing having to do with this topic – I think your energy is best spent elsewhere.

  • WhitePower

    I agree with you Nick, i hate also photos with black people. I wanna see pure white blond people.

  • David G

    You sure seem to have a U.S.-centric worldview about history. You might want to read more.

  • harumph

    Why do you keep talking about the U.S.? I’m talking about White European Imperialism and you’re saying I have a U.S.-centric view of the world? Do you know where I’m from?

    Read more? You can’t even be bothered to read the posts you’re responding to.

  • HONY fan

    I think you are over thinking this. Brandon of HONY fame seems to me to have a very gracious, respectful and kind attitude towards all his subjects. I think you are limiting something that is trying to capture the people in NYC and in so doing being all encompassing. It’s interesting because I see HONY as stopping to admire the day-to-day not the exotic.

  • HONY fan

    P.S. – It’s funny because your label of “white” is racist. “White” is an American problem. (That label is denying someone their ethnicity, culture and identity). Why limit someone’s art to their skin color?

  • Rrow

    The irony of his post is that he only does landscapes. And i wonder if what he is saying also applies to test genre. Are there white guy landscapes…and is just doing the same thing…minus the humans.

  • Rrow

    Meant to write ” applies to that genre…”

  • B

    So what would make you happier? If Humans of New York never existed, or if it was a photographer or color? You’re knocking this gentleman’s perspective based on a cultural history.

  • will

    If you had written a similar article attacking the way black people take photos you’d immediately realise that you’re a racist. Unfortunately, because this racism is targeted at the white majority, you’re happy to let it slide. If you’re so tired of racism you should stop creating racial divides that aren’t there – stop attributing behaviour to race. The phenomenon you’re talking about has everything to do with privilege and nothing to do with race. These people aren’t taking these lame photos because they’re white, they’re taking them because of the mentality of “oh look at how fascinating the less privileged people are”. Just because most privileged people are white doesn’t mean they photograph like this because they’re white, much the same way that just because most people in prison are black doesn’t mean they’re criminals because they’re black. I agree that it’s pretty hollow photography, but the way you have expressed that is absolutely appalling. Maybe you should stick to taking pictures and refrain from writing blog posts.

  • Piotrek Ziolkowski

    No offense to him but he is not a street photographer (WInogrand, Erwitt etc) , he just photographs in the streets. I’ve come across his project long time ago and I liked the stories but not the pictures.

  • Josh

    Saying it is a poor ad hominem attack is a passive aggressive ad hominem attack, and even if it was ad hominem it doesn’t lesson the fact that what he said he felt was true.

  • Nick

    AMEN!

  • Amulya

    Came across your blog while looking for some new photography projects. I quite agree with you about HONY. I actually liked HONY, which is similar to the 100 Strangers Project, and I even began something similar in my own city. But I’ve gotten quite jaded in the past few months with it. The whole idea of walking up to someone and taking a photograph of them doesn’t cut it. It needs to be more. Every city does not have the same kind of visually vibrant characters like NY or Melbourne. And even the mundane has something special that needs to be captured.
    What I’d really like to do is get these normal people in a studio and photograph them with something that really defines them, or all their neuroses or something like that.

  • David Sierra

    oh man i’m so glad you wrote this.

  • http://www.jafabrit.blogspot.com/ jafabrit

    I hadn’t even thought about the race or gender of the photographer, all I was focused on was enjoying the stories of people around New York. Yes, I plan to shoot what I enjoy and the world around me and not worry too much about the age,rage,gender biases others apply to whatever I do as an artist.