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


 
  • Michael S

    HONY isn’t a photography project, it’s a documentary project. I think that’s where the boredom comes from photographers. There’s zero skill involved in what he’s doing, zero creativity in terms of artistry. Half the photos I’ve viewed of his aren’t even in focus. Let’s call a spade a spade.

  • Michael S

    Sure he does.

    -Don’t document “others” for the sake of documenting “other”.
    -Create work documenting the context of why it’s being photographed.

    Pretty clear. And that’s simply his ideal for interesting which will probably be different than yours.

  • michael

    Umm…I think the OP is white.

  • michael

    So what’s the point of taking pictures if people can’t comment on them?

  • Mikey

    oh i get it like when I see Steve McCurry’s or William Allard Allen’s work, I’m like that is boring, what a white guy photographer. Uh, no.

    I’d like to hear what triggered this in you. I kind of get your point, and the photo tours in Burma I encountered while independently traveling bugged me for many of the same reasons. But…

    Are your concerns more about subject selection of “exotic” or more about claims made (or implied) after-the-fact by the photographer? Seems like they are about a lack of context… if so then exotic subject photography just needs better contextualization to be non-boring? So photo essays are ok? Where do you draw that line and how arbitrary is it?

    What are the implications of the subjects desires? I have had people I photographed thank me for noticing them and/or asking me to tell their story with my photos of them. Does this change your thinking?

    Is it ok for Easterners to gush about photos of exotic-looking people? My good Indian friend loved some of my pics when he took me to Benares and his home in Kolkata. Or is it boring, trodden ground only when these photos are presented to Westerners?

    I (and it appears other people) like photographing people and human behaviors they are not familiar with. They may appear to be photos of exotic people to you, but I don’t see it that way. I see them as humans. For example, I love to photograph human ingenuity, a theme I don’t tire of and photograph anywhere. Sometimes that means a 12 year old kid on a pier in remote Indonesia with his homemade spear gun, but it also means photos of micropark installation details in SF.

    Anyway, I do not like people that label others and judge the intention of their photographs based on assumptions of intent. This leads down the path of projection–never a good idea. You do seem to assume many people taking photos of “exotic” people are doing this because they want to present “other” to Westerners as art or whatever. I think that is true only sometimes.

    And I think white people can be exotic!

    And yes I am fully aware of white privilege as an actual thing and I understand how it works. I do get certain advantages in life because I am white. It is helpful for you to mention white privilege, but I do not think that it is particularly relevant in this discussion. Are you say that you are less interested in photos taken by privileged, Western, white people? I find Sebastiao Salgado’s and James Nachtwey work interesting, and I think he probably fits your definition of privileged. And I think their work is important and exotic and gives voices to their subjects, bringing them out of the shadows.

  • not a boots

    Wow. Photographers are probably the most touchy, self-absorbed breed of artist I’ve come across on the internet. I can’t believe you managed to wring an entire out of this.

  • Julija Berkovica

    pure speculation. i think HONY is great in its simplicity, nothing to do w black/while. gives an impression that the author is simply jealous. i say – do your work and let others do theirs!

  • Aaro Keipi

    Have you ever tried taking natural-looking pictures of strangers? Even though it’s not on par with designing and editing a large-scale commercial shoot, there is some skill involved, though not as much in the technical sense.

    And I’m gonna disagree on the artistry bit. This goes into semantics and differing viewpoints on what art is, but I think Brandon is an artist, in the way a documentary filmmaker can be an artist. An artist doesn’t have to be technically perfect 100% of the time (though it’s a definite plus); in my opinion an artist is someone who causes you to see the world in a different way. This is what HONY does well.

    All too often photographers are so focused on technical aspects and creating something that’s never been done before that they forget that shooting something simple, interesting, and relevant to millions of people has its own value. He may not be an amazing photographer, but he doesn’t have to be in order to make an impact.

  • White Guy

    Can you give us an example of something that you like? Show me an amazing documentary project that doesn’t have these problems.

  • YoramFromBerlin

    Newsflash: Glorified photoblogger who shoots landscapes and birds condescends on people who go out and shoot other people.

  • David C

    Petapixel not had the best week in terms of posting poorly written “articles” that only engender rants in the comments. This guy could only have written a poorer piece if he’d incorporated “gangs of gypsies” in there somewhere.

    C’mon petapixel, try harder.

  • http://www.photography-dw.de/ Daniel Walldorf

    I don’t get the meaning of this article.. If you would have said “Do it better”, instead of “Stop doing it”, maybe that would have made sense.

    But.. huh? Am I supposed to stop photography because I’m white? Or am I supposed to stop taking photographs of something you find unexotic? Well.. Then you stop taking photographs of whatever you take photographs of because someone will think it is not exotic.

  • http://www.facebook.com/nanonyous Theo Lubbe

    Or “do more of it till it becomes ‘normal’ rather than being picked out by people who want to take issue with something”

  • http://www.facebook.com/nanonyous Theo Lubbe

    I’m tired of the idea that there’s some hidden agenda behind someone’s shooting, and that race has anything to do with what that.

    Here in South Africa there are those that keep spouting ‘the colonial gaze, the colonial gaze’ whenever someone puts a camera up to their face and frames a shot that will include anything that has anything to do with people who are not white, or are taking photos in any place that is not Italy, England or France. I wish they’d all just shut up already and stop pretending to know anything about the thoughts going through a particular photographer’s mind whenever they take a photo.

  • Andy Umbo

    Giving this a “gender” is ridiculous. There’s tons of bad “art” photography being done by people of all races, colors and genders. I’m a professional photographer, and you know what I’m tired of in the “art photography” world? People photographing their family.

    Every third person on Lenscratch is photographing their family. Every second person at the local galleries are photographing their families and calling it “art”. All this from the FaceBook generation that can’t meet people on the street face-to-face; they’re too scared! They like to sit in coffee houses and passive-aggressively flame people on the internet, but if they meet people face-to-face, they fumble around and stare at their shoes. Most all the work is garbage too, I don’t care about your family and it’s middle-class angst.

    As far as I’m concerned, a person of any race or class, that stops and talks to a person of another race or class, and maybe wants to tell their story, is already far and away better than most of the “photo-artists” out there photographing their families. I can agree that the current conventional wisdom amongst the educated elite, is that people are better off documenting their own culture (that alone is a conceit), and I get that they might, might get a different story than an outsider. But so much of it depends on personality and interaction that it’s a toss-up.

    BTW, I spend about 3-5 weeks in San Francisco a year, and all I have to say is “worse art city ever”. Don’t care what it used to be back when it was the hippy city of love, it’s all Pacific Rim investors and Mutual Fund people now. Artists can’t live there and survive. So this diatribe by Vossbrink is suspect tight out of the gate…

  • MMielech

    Thanks for the link to the project. Much more interesting than your rant.

  • DafOwen

    Not a great article IMHO
    Too short – just a post to get some reaction and traffic – looking at the 200+comments it seem’s it’s got it.

    You say you don’t like their styles – but don’t explain what that is for you to us. (People see things differently)
    Neither do you suggest or explain alternatives.

  • garbagecollector

    Dude just wrote in his follow-up post that he hasn’t actually spent time looking at HONY. Was just going for a “gut reaction.” What a fapper.

  • Guest

    I am tired of rants about white guy photography projects. People are people. Some good, some bad, no matter what ethnicity or background you are. I live in a predominantly Latino neighborhood where I am the exception. I am also of Jewish descent. I have experienced hatred and prejudice on many levels throughout my life. While I understand and can relate to what you are saying, all you are doing is feeding fuel to the fire that should have been extinguished decades ago.

    As far as I am concerned, nothing is photographed till you yourself have photographed it. History should not be ignored and I find too many people today couldn’t give a rats ass about what happened before they were born. History is what affects you now. Today is your future. It all defines you. Don’t like what you see? Do something for yourself that is meaningful.

    My thoughts are in no way in support of HONY. I have issues with the project myself.

  • Guest

    What wave length are you on Nick? I can’t find the channel.

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

    .
    This is the mere evolution of storytelling … versus (conservative, previous generation) industry … versus (middle-generation, profitable) marketing … versus (current social-whim) consumer attention span … versus … oh, you name it. *

    In music, Opera once ruled on the stage … then electronics split audio storytelling into radio as one new “stage” for “singles”, and the phonograph “stage” where albums ruled … then digital further split audio storytelling into CD albums and web-downloadable singles … devolving even lower into mere snippets-as-money-makers (see “One of These Mornings” by Moby, and the like).

    Back to photographic storytelling.

    What is a story, what is storytelling, and what are “photographic storytelling” consumers willing to pay for? *

    Those questions come down to marketing, and, yes, if I had a FOR PROFIT book publishing house, and built-in distribution through store-fronts nationwide, I’d go for a saleable, physical project, a coffee-table book, a seasonal gift presentation like “HUMANS …” fully realized in publishing-ready format by the author with no editing or pre-publishing prep required by me.

    The fact that it’s white-guy territory is a byproduct of society having loads of spare white guys hanging around with cameras, and also having loads of spare white guys hanging around in publishing houses, and all of them looking for something to do.

    Let’s not complain, as it beats having a surplus of white guys hanging around with guns and running munitions factories, eh? =8^o

    I think looking for alternative, expansive, inclusive storytelling makes sense, and if a white guy is the conduit for that, for something new, what are you gonna do about it?

    Are we gonna endlessly dismiss anything new as yet another “white guy” project just because it comes from yet another “white guy”?

    The way white-guy Elvis brought black music to “the masses”?

    When are we gonna experience the story and the storytelling for themselves, even the storyteller for themself, without a feeling of exclusive “white guy” privilege overwhelming any other message?

    I think Martin Luther King Jr would have suggested that those spare white guys must be part of the solution.

    (Hey, I’m trying here!)

    ==========

    * PS — You’ll notice that I did not even broach the subject of What stories, and storytelling methods, are photographers desperate to explore and willing to share? — the topic of another thread.
    .

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

    .
    A recent study says there’s an equivalent “men’s gaze” at women’s, er, “chest”-al area.

    Funny, but the research shows that women also gaze at other’s women’s chests.

    The point is that a scene may evoke compelling emotions in white guys and non-white guys same-same regardless of who took the picture.

    It is not a problem to be fixed.

    If there is any problem, it is the feeling that non-white-guys can’t play.

    Digital, and especially the web, have made that not quite so true — nowadays, anyone can tell their story one way or another.

    The real complaint is that as the boundary moves making storytelling more accessible to the masses, the old-world success of book publishing seems as inaccessible as ever.

    If we focus on only one avenue of storytelling marketing success, we are missing many, many other opportunities.

    Still, having one’s own book in hand, seeing it on a bookstore shelf, on a library shelf, going on a book tour, turning it into subsequent contracts, making a living, a good living at photographic storytelling is quite a compelling dream.
    .

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

    .
    Thanks, Mikey — a better exploration of the subject than the opening blog post.
    .

  • Kynikos

    What a load of pc crap.

  • John Adkins

    Hogwash. Each to his own I suppose, but it sounds like to me this guy needs to crawl in a closet somewhere and get some sleep. It appears everything makes him tired.

  • greenarcher02

    White people are exotic to me. I’ve always wanted to shoot the white people walking around Manila. I just haven’t run into one that’s actually interesting. Actually I did, but I wasn’t carrying a camera then. They were a couple, seemingly looking at a GPS, they were carrying North Face backpacks and a Canon DSLR. It was rather interesting seeing them lost in a place that’s easy for me to navigate around.
    All I see now are men looking to have some fun, men with their Filipina girlfriends/wives, and some that seem to get around just alright and mingle in the shops and malls.

  • TinusVerdino

    When you are a white male you will see from a white male perspective. Simply because you are a white male. Nothing wrong with that. Is this some kind of inverted racism?

  • Scott M.

    This seems to prevail on many Disqus forums. If you stay on the page long enough, the posts you read from many names change after you refresh the page. Either Disqus is buggy or the individual blogs or blogger have the ability to make the comments more interesting, create more conversation and thereby create more traffic for advertising income. I am very suspicious of Nikonrumors for doing this. Why wouldn’t Petapixel do it too?

  • Frank zappa

    This article is retarded guy writing. Since when did travellers of any culture not gawk at and find exotic the strangeness or oddity of the places they visit.

  • http://currentphotography.com/ CurrentCo

    That was my point in stating that I look like a white guy…that I can pass for white…because I am. And yes, photography is a privilege, I don’t take it lightly and I won’t let people look down on me because of their preconceived notions about me. I won’t have guilt about being white, or being Mexican, or the kind of photography I enjoy producing.

  • Robert Mark

    Man, I’m having a hard time understanding the rules. It’s not OK to shoot pictures of non-white people, but it’s OK to shoot pictures of white people? How about poor white people? Professionally dressed black people? I have dark skin — does that give me a free pass to photograph other dark skinned people. What if I shoot native American people when I pass through New Mexico on Rt 66? I need to get a better grip on any regional subtleties of this new Politically Correct photo walk.

  • Guest

    Seems like some photographers are beginning to hate photography, simply because it’s so pervasive now. Think everything has been photographed? There are a limited number of musical notes, yet original music continues to happen.

  • tyrohne

    I can’t respect idiotic beliefs. Even benign ones. Saudi’s don’t think women should drive. Russia has a homosexual acceptance problem. It’s a slippery, ridiculous slope and I’m not willing to play it.

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

    .
    Let’s expand our understanding of our own photographic storytelling history.

    Women were into photography careers a hundred years ago because there was no other mainstream avenue for women to earn a living.

    Read books and resources from a simple web search for [ history of women in photography ].

    So, what happened?

    Those greedy bastard white guys saw easy money and took over once the little women had developed(!) the marketplace.

    Happens all the time.

    There are the innovators, versus imitators, and the latter usually make the most money.
    .

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

    .
    But negativity and controversy generate the greatest visitorship for the advertisements!
    .

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

    .

    TinusVerdino wrote, “… When you are a white male you will see from a white male perspective. Simply because you are a white male. Nothing wrong with that. Is this some kind of inverted racism? …”

    Yes and no.

    But it is inaccurate.

    You are not a “white male” even though others may see only that about you.

    That is THEIR problem, not yours.

    Is it racist of THEM?

    Maybe.

    Reading the comments, I see the leaning is:

    YES the author is racist, unable to see below the surface of the skin of their photographic subjects, and that spells danger for a nascent photographer trying to develop(!) storytelling chops.
    .

  • harumph

    Looking at his post history, I’m not sure he was being sarcastic.

  • harumph

    I made no mention of the United States. White colonialism has a global history. And yes, the history of European colonialism dates back to the 15th century. I’m really not sure where your confusion stems from here.

  • Ian Stallings

    Because it’s not a problem..

  • Ian Stallings

    White guy discovers white privilege, gets tired of himself. – The Onion.

  • harumph

    You don’t see the exoticizing or “Othering” of non-white subjects as a problem? You don’t see the dominance of the white male colonial viewpoint in photography as a problem? You don’t see the irrelevance of this outmoded style of reportage? The stale, unimaginative, privileged, white photographer who seeks to document a non-white culture for a privileged, white audience?

    If not, then that’s fine. You’re right in line with most people who aren’t personally affected by any of this, and don’t ever have to give it much thought. But it helps to be aware that these issues are problems for a great number of other people.

  • harumph

    Not for you, maybe. Congratulations, you’re white.

  • Ian Stallings

    Thanks, what do I win?

  • malaviKat

    I hardly think you can compare Russia’s anti-homosexuality stance/oppression of the LGBT community with cultures that might have a particular perspective on photography or film. One violates basic human rights, the other might, at its worst, suppress your “right” as a photographer. Why are your rights unalienable where theirs are not?

    This conversation smacks of an attempt to justify cultural imperialism.

  • harumph

    White privilege, manifest destiny…what more do you want?

  • malaviKat

    Thanks. I thought I was going a little crazy. Real trolls are bad enough. How unfortunate that we couldn’t just have a conversation without fictitious ones emerging as well.

  • Ian Stallings

    People like you to get some perspective on people. We’re not all alike.

  • harumph

    People like me? Relax, I’m just having some fun with you.

  • http://www.richspencerphotography.com/ freeboprich

    Essentially I agree with your second point – not that I really think he said that clearly enough anyway – but I feel I should expand on it:
    If your viewer can’t figure out what the photo’s about from the photo itself (I don’t mean that captions are unnecessary, but massive essays on the meaning and intentions behind a shot are responsible for turning me off from a lot of photographers’ work), then I don’t think the image is doing its job anyway. As image makers we are constantly imposing our views on our audience, but the trick is not to pummel them with opinions and prejudices but inspire them to look more deeply into the subject with fresh eyes
    Which takes me onto your first point, the shooter should constantly bring a fresh perspective and I don’t agree that we shouldn’t be seeking “the other” because we shoot what intrigues us and most of us want to make discoveries for ourselves and furthermore, share them with others. This is by no means a colonial or racially unique trait, it’s part of human nature.

  • Godilver

    HONY is great, it really tells you the story of the people of NY. How different all those people can be, although they live in the same city. I’m from Europe and even as an outstander I find it very interesting to see al these differences. Because where I live, we’re pretty much all the same.

    On the other side I completely understand what you mean. The finder of HONY is again ‘a white guy’. But that doesn’t have to mean it can’t be great! Maybe a black photographer should just stand up and say: “I can do this too. I want to prove how good black/asian/latin-american/… can be! And I will prove it.” I truly believe this could be a good thing to society.