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


 
  • Frogman

    I’ve seen your blog/website and now I’m bored.

  • Anthony

    In a way. I agree with the point he is making. However, I do feel as though the term “white guy” isn’t really necessary though, and that isn’t because it offends me – a white guy – it just doesn’t need to be there. It’s about the photographers doing these projects, not their ethnicity.

    Still, it probably wouldn’t have anywhere near as much attention had it not been for the edgy title.

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

    Whiteness and privilege walk hand in hand- kinda like walking into Barney’s.

    The group on top is the one that can afford to laugh.

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

    Think you plain missed the boat on this- ask yourself how many White guys in the history of photography have made their career photographing people of color around the world. It would be nice if the ratio of ethnicities behind the lens would more closely equal those in front- particularly in a mostly non white world.

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

    Check out Aaron Huey’s work- then read about how he operates.

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

    Check out En Foco.

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

    I’m tired of living under them.

  • Nick Thompson

    What a load of pretentious bollocks. He moans about the subject but says nothing about what can be done to improve it. I’m getting so bored to listening/reading about left wing wankers finding racism where it doesn’t exist.

  • harumph

    In case you missed out on the last 600 years or so of white imperialism, the author did actually have a point by using the broad term “white guy photography.” To call it racially prejudiced or misogynistic is to miss the point completely.

  • Bristol

    Don’t know. Never seen one.

  • Mike Burchard

    Ha! What a bunch of BS! People – ALL people, regardless of the amount of pigmentation in their skin – view the world through the prism of their own experiences, and they photograph it accordingly. Unless they’re overtly racist – like Nick V – they’re almost never creating a photograph to say “this is what this thing looks like to a black/white/asian guy”. Regardless of what we look like, we create photographs to give the world – and posterity – some sense of what our personal experience of life and the world was at a brief, unique, and irretrievable moment in time.

  • markz

    I live in the worlds most boring “White Guy” city.
    Day in, day out, I struggle, and fail, to find something, anything, interesting to photograph.

    You couldn’t imagine a more non “exotic” locale in all your “White Guy” existence. It’s Dullsville, Borington and Yawn City all rolled in to one blot on the map.

    Yet somehow we get a constant stream of tourists, a very large number of them from places like Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, India, China, Japan… all those “must go” “exotic locations” that “White guy photographers” visit to take pictures of unusual people in unusual locations doing unusual things.
    And they take pictures of us dull “white guys” doing “dull white guy” things in our “dull white guy” places:

    Life savers patrolling white sandy beach?
    Apparently this yawn inducing sight is exotic to whole crowds of non “white guys”, take a swim in the ocean at some beaches and you can sometime it feel like all of Bollywood’s paparazzi are standing on the shore.

    Family’s picnicking in a park by a (relatively) clean river backed with the modest skyline of a small city?
    You wouldn’t believe how many non “white guys” from high density S.E.A. urban sprawls find this boring image exciting, it’s almost impossible to enjoy a cheese and cracker snack in a riverside park without finding yourself surrounded by Tokyo’s latest temporary escapees all with their white lensed 1D(insert subscript) DSLRs

    and those boring black swans that harass me at the lake on my mundane walk to work?
    Often there’s a dozen or more Chinese tourists staking out the ground hoping to get a good shot of these “exotic” animals going all territorial on the locals.

    yep them crazy people think this “White Guy” world is exotic.

  • Brett I

    If you take a picture and it comes off as you exotisizing the “other” than you are doing it wrong, probably.

    See, you can make your point without ranting.

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

    Bob- All due respect, but you entirely missed the point.

    Ask yourself- how many White guys in the history of photography have
    made their career photographing people of color around the world. Answer: quite a few.

    It
    would be nice if the ratio of ethnicities behind the lens (particularly in the commercial & fine art realm) would more closely equal those in front- particularly in a mostly non white world.

  • alfredo garcia

    Racist white photographers – that’s a very, very serious (and stupid) accusation.

  • Jason Philbrook

    Gotta admit; Edward S Curtis did a damn fine job at what the author is complaining about.

  • Zachary Larsen

    I am tired of faux-vintage photo filters. Anybody who uses them is probably a racist.

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

    No disagreement, but to that point, the history of photography, particularly documentary and photojournalism has traditionally been primary white males until recent history.

    James Van Der Zee, Gordon Parks, Prentice Herman Polk, and a handful of others are some exceptions to that (along with some women photojournalists as well). And they all created wonderful work.

    It is what it is; doesn’t make it right or wrong. We see a much higher cultural mix in photography today, than we did even 30 years ago when I first got into the business.

    But I can also tell you unequivocally that as a journalist, I go where the action is.

    Example – I used to work for a mid to large market newspaper in the midwest, in a city that had a significant socioeconomic divide. Part of what I did every day is to go out and hunt for “slice of life” photos. I would invariably always head to the poorer parts of town. Why? Because that’s where all the life was happening. Kids were out shooting hoops, people were playing dominos and chess outside, an entrepreneur set up shop on the corner of the block and was giving haircuts. It was life, it was interesting. Going over to the ‘upper class’ (and I say that with great cynicism) part of town, you drove around for hours seeing all the houses sealed up with central air conditioning, kids weren’t out playing – they were inside playing Nintendo. Occasionally I’d shoot some kids playing in little league. I could have gone to the Mall, or to the golf course and shot images of people shopping, or hobnobbing, but how interesting would that be for anyone?

    I’d much rather tell the stories of people engaging and reveling in life. It’s as simple as that.

  • Robert Mark

    I’m not sure why admin Is wasting bandwidth promoting this self serving prick.

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

    Unfortunately, as of late – if you start a blog post with the first word “Rant” it will get published here… there’s been a lot of troll-bait lately. It gets discussion going, though.

  • Robert Mark

    There is nothing stopping them.

  • ML

    They need a few hits on the site so they had to post a dumb article.

  • JH

    I just threw up a little bit in my mouth just now. I’m going to have to throw-in-the-towel on a three year photo project in China because…well…I’m a western white guy. What the hell am I going to do with all those freaking photos now!!!! Crap.

  • Dave

    I was going to leave a comment about how misguided and shallow this article is but after reading the comments below it’s clear that it’s already been covered. What HONY has accomplished is to show the world that if you can go outside your comfort zone and be willing to interact with the people you would normally pass by, then you can be someone who shares stories that inspire millions of people.

  • Matriarch

    So what would your ideal photography project look like?

  • Renato Murakami

    I’m tired of mainstream hollywood movies, I’m tired of investigative series, I’m tired of sports shows, I’m tired of RPG games, I’m tired of sensationalism in news, I’m tired of 3D animated movies… know what I do about it? Just don’t watch them. Let others who do like those enjoy them. I don’t call people dumb for liking it, I don’t keep repeating how many of those I’ve seen through history, and I certainly don’t try to offend the authors behind them when they actually seem to be putting an effort to it.
    Because I really don’t think the world has to turn around my tastes, opinions, mood swings, and perceptions around certain subjects. I don’t try to shove my standards on others.
    Want something better? Do it yourself. Being a troll or ranting on the internet does nothing. It achieves no results other than coming off as a jackass. Or at least throw some constructive criticism around it. No need to keep implying that the author of the project was ill intended purposedly or not. No need to trample down on other people’s effort. If other’s projects are so poor as you put it, it’ll be easy enough to come up with something better of your own.

  • Michael Leza

    Stupid white people, always doing things. How dare they interact with the world. Privilege! My thing should be more popular but white people are inherently bad so it isn’t! I don’t like this popular thing so nobody else should, they should like this other thing if they want to be real and authentic!

  • Guest

    Yes, we all know that people of color throughout the world all have equal access to: food, adequate housing, quality education (particularly photographic) and jobs that provide a living wage. If they can’t manage a proper photographic kit for their career it is simply because they are lazy, stupid or hooked on drugs.

    Your trite response betrays the very privilege you are ignorant to.

  • Michael Leza

    If that’s the case than white people probably need some kind of protected minority status, and this article is even MORE racist than it already is.

  • Neil

    I’m very disappointed that this was posted here, that’s all I’m going to say. If I see something like this again here, I may not come back after several years of looking almost every day.

  • Meh

    I got tired reading each word of this article and am shocked Peta would post something so pathetic.

    All this has done is shown that Nick Vossbrink has lost his perspective in understanding people. People find “different” interesting. When a white western woman goes to Africa or middle east areas wearing skirts and tight tops, the men and woman can not stop staring (I know having moved to middle east recently). Infact even men just wearing shorts get the looks to but it is because it’s different from their culturual up bringing and it fasinate or disgusts them.

    Not everyone has the time, or maybe the money or even interest to travel, but they might have a passing interest if not long term interest, in seeing other cultures and life style. More so in America where the majority of people don’t even own a passport.

    Rather than rant, you should embrace or ignore. But spreading negativity among others is just pure selfish. If you can not accept that, best you get a new job and lifestyle

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

    Yes, we all know that people of color throughout the world have equal access to: food, adequate housing, quality education (incl photographic), and jobs providing a living wage. If they can’t manage a proper photo kit for their career or interests, it is simply because they are too lazy, stupid or hooked on drugs.

    Your trite response well illustrates the privilege to which you are completely ignorant.

  • Robert Mark

    You don’t know me, or my level of privilege or lack thereof.

    Take a look at the lovely work of Robin Wong, who unashamedly has posted that he recently bought a used camera and pair of lenses (and hasn’t the “privilege” that you mention). His work is brilliant, yet he is literally a world apart from the stereotype that the OP asserts to have become a meme.

  • D.G. Brown

    While I love petapixel, I’m starting to get really tired of rant articles…

  • Sundra Tanakoh

    Well, so ends my brief time reading PP. Over 40 years of photography and I have never read such a line of crap in all my life. See ya.

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

    Rising from the depths of adversity is what people of color do each and every day, world over. It is what we do!

    So I am considerably less surprised (than you) by any accomplishment Mr. Wong may achieve. I was merely reacting to the arrogance and ignorance (they often travel in tandem) of your original comment.

  • cdxv.tumblr.com

    Please don’t call yourself a photographer in the bio, it’s insulting to those who actually make a living from their work.

  • Robert Mark

    Friend, I’m on your team. Lose the chip on the shoulder. Wong’s work, yours or mine shouldn’t surprise any of us. I hope it delights all of us.

  • John_E_Canuck

    I’m tired of mediocre (I’m being generous) photographers ranting about other mediocre photographers. I’m tired of pretentious “white people problems” being projected onto a larger canvas than they merit, for the sake of gratifying the ego of someone who really should find another outlet for their creative impulses.

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

    Sometimes it’s that very chip that allows one to overcome- but I’m not hating on no one. There is a certain level of give and take in photography, and often it can be particularly one sided, on a personal and/or cultural level. I think we can only better ourselves, our work, and our world when we more closely reexamine our roles in that equation and how we relate to those we interact with. Peace.

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

    Sorry I accidentally upvoted you, I had an involuntary spasm reading your comment- couldn’t help wondering if you were an Afrikaner, since that’s what they always claim.

  • Brad Martin

    Um guys, Cinekpol’s post sets off my sarcasm alarm. I believe he’s pointing out that saying that “white guys” are racist for going to Europe because it’s supposedly “exotic” is an absurd proposition.

  • Vin Weathermon

    I became tired after about fourteen times reading how tired you are. I don’t know who the photographer is for the HONY project, but really maybe it is because he actually cares about what he sees and that may be the only thing he can possibly do about it. Tired of photography by educated compassionate white people? Don’t look…you’ll be well rested.

  • Vin Weathermon

    You sound like you live where I do in Irvine…Beigetown.

  • Vin Weathermon

    I’d like to hear exactly why this one guy’s dislike of imagery from any “group” is a problem. It isn’t. Nobody is harmed, many are entertained, and I’d wonder if the subjects themselves actually liked the photo/story. In which case it doesn’t matter who else likes it or not. No problem.

  • David G

    In case you thought the United States is the only country in the world which matters – it isn’t. And believe it or not, western white history isn’t the only history which has happened either in the past 600 years. The view expressed here seems obviously U.S.-centric, and sort of discounts the rest of the world for the sake of pretending unsympathetic photographers are peculiarly a “white guy” phenomenon.

  • Neoh Hor Kee

    Strange, I got hooked onto NatGeo mags ‘coz they had topless photos of ‘exotic’ yet natural women all over the place

  • Brad Martin

    So first I don’t even understand what “white guy” even means. Is it the author’s contention that a white Russian Orthodox Jew is culturally the same as a white French Socialist Anarchist because those two people share the same melanin level in their skin? If that’s the contention, that melanin level informs a person’s cultural viewpoint, then that contention is significantly ignorant. Or perhaps the byproduct of a college Liberal Arts degree.

    If the author’s contention is that Sturgeon’s law is in full effect (90% of everything is crap,) and that the Internet has had the unfortunate effect of allowing that bubbling mass of crap to be too easily discovered and promoted then I would agree with that.

    One of the problems with this article is that the author is so culturally blinkered by living in the United States he seems to think that because all he sees is “white guy photography” in the English speaking media that is all there must be in the world. There is a wonderful diverse world of photographic traditions out there if you go looking for them, especially among the various Asian countries. But cultural and language barriers put a significant wall in front of people trying to discover those. I suspect that our intrepid author has not put the time or effort into discovering those traditions.

    Another very important thing to remember is that photography has only been available to the general public for the last 60 years or so, and has only been made easy and inexpensive in the last 10 years. That is a blink of an eye compared to other artistic traditions out there. And now that inexpensive cell phones with cameras are flooding economically disadvantaged countries (damn it, those darker skinned people are being forced to buy “white guy phones”) and higher quality cameras are falling tremendously in price we will start to see other people around the world start to discover their own photographic voice and have the tools to share it with others. It might take some work to find it, but it will be there for those who care to search for it. And when they do find it, it will be wonderful.

    The bigest problem with this article is that it’s the equivalent of the author standing on the street corner with this dick out, swinging it around, and yelling “look at me!” While stomping your feet and going on about how white people suck might get you laid by that nice liberal woman at the next G8 protest it is in no way productive in forwarding a conversation. All it does it cause like minded individuals to wrap themselves in their nice warm cocoon of conformity and humph about how “he’s so right”, and everyone else just gets turned off and disgusted by it. If you really want to make a difference you have to work and go out and find those different photographic viewpoints that you think are significant and share them with others, get them exposure. But that’s a lot of work, and it’s much easier to just carp about things. Being a prick will get your website hits, but it won’t solve any problems.

  • Michael S

    I read an article that dumb people and ignorant people lead happier lives.

    The problem with the writer being a city guy who in surrounding by culture, is that he’s bored by it because it’s a fact of life. I remember leaving NYC after 10 years and moving to LA and thinking, why are there so many white people around? Then I remembered, this is how most people in America live. Things are shifting as Spanish speaking Latinos increase their percentages in the states, but it’s still a very white country. Most people see these bland boring photos as something new and interesting because they aren’t familiar with any kind of urban life outside of what they see in TV and Films. They don’t see people of color or drag queens or openly gay couples walking down the street holding hands every day like those of us in urban progressive populations do.

    I agree though, HONY isn’t pushing any type of limit, it looks like a freshman photography project. But he’s doing_something_ and it’s our job as viewers to push the culture forward so we’re not praising and holding up works like his as important cultural art of record.

  • Geppo

    Boring.