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Defending ‘Needles in the Sewer’ and Photographing the Disadvantaged


One of my images has been subjected to criticism and scrutiny in a way that none of my other work ever has. The photograph in question is of a scene in London, Chinatown; a man reaches into a sewer while shouting about how someone threw his needles down there.

I waited a moment or two before I decided to make a photograph, shot two frames, and then continued my walk. At the time I took it I knew there would be a strong response to the photograph, both artistically and philosophically/ethically.

However, it will always be the prerogative of the photographer to decide on their own personal ethics and to apply those to their work. I will always photograph things that catch my attention, and leave it to the audience for whether or not it “works” for them. This should never stop me from creating in the first place — no one needs “permission” to make an image, but similarly, everyone in the audience has the choice to enjoy or disregard whatever they want.

The main issues people brought up about this image were consent and exploitation.

I will usually disagree quite strongly with anyone who argues that consent is necessary for street photography in public. The law in the UK and many other countries defends photographers and photojournalists when it comes to candid photography in public spaces. Often “permission” will destroy the integrity of a true photojournalistic-scene.

The only time I ask for permission for photographs is when I’m shooting portraiture one-on-one, when it is necessary, and this shows in my work. As a member of the public (especially in London, one of the most heavily CCTV monitored cities in the world) I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect privacy.

Exploitation is a slightly trickier problem to deal with because there is definitely some profit to be had from this image, even if only from exposure. I was conscious when taking the image to wait until a moment his face was obscured; so at least his specific identity is not what I am profiting from, and rather the scene in general.

I also think that the image depicts quite a relatable form of suffering, an addict in a first world city. This is no more exploitative than war photography, or images of starvation and disease. If anything this is closer to home for much of my audience, and because of this has more emotional pressure.

I think that because photography is an “art” form there is a conflation between photojournalism as storytelling, and art as an aesthetic to enjoy. The question of whether or not you can or should enjoy photojournalism is a difficult one, but I think that for me the answer is that the artistic elements of any image can be appreciated, but that the story being told is what deserves a second thought; whether through enjoyment, or catharsis, or any other considered emotional response.

When it comes to street photography, at some point or another, a photographer will draw mental lines which mark out the boundaries of their ethics. This has a strong connection to the photographer’s agenda – whether they are using street photography to practice their craft, to enjoy a hobby, or to build a portfolio to move into other areas of photography, such as lifestyle or portraiture. I think that photographers who are uncertain about where they draw their lines are unsure of their agenda. With some introspection, this can be overcome, and I think the photographer’s work will be stronger as a result of this direction.

I know that my own motives and agenda are not nefarious, so I have no issues with photographing people less fortunate than myself. I don’t feel the need to “justify” or reinforce these ideas to myself, but I enjoy sharing my perspective on these topics as it may help other photographers to make up their own minds.

I don’t take photographs to make people look bad. I don’t distort faces with wide lenses, or highlight physical features people may not be comfortable with. I don’t go out of my way to search for people in a scene who may offer a sympathy or shock factor. I simply find images to make wherever I end up, and sometimes that means men in suits, and other times men in sewers.

I respect all of my subjects, regardless of context. I shoot discreetly, without harassing or bothering people. If someone asks me to leave or to stop then I will. If they ask me to delete images I will stand up for myself if they exist, and if not I will explain that and leave the situation.

I am not faking scenes to say that something happened when it did not. I can only document the reality of a moment; things that are a part of my life, life in London, and life in general. To not photograph these things when they are in front of me would be much worse, and can end up skewing people’s perceptions of an issue in the other direction.

My responsibility (and maybe yours?) as a photographer is to avoid self-censorship. I can always choose to publish an image or not, but only if that image exists in the first place. If I take an image then I should have the presence of mind to understand what I saw in that scene, and what purpose I want to apply to that image. If I had not taken an image at this time would that be a form of erasing and ignoring this issue? I would rather face discussion and debate about my work than to talk as if these issues are distant and abstract.

Thanks for taking the time to read this. I’d like to direct some of the attention from this topic and image to the website Addaction. It’s a UK-based organization providing aid and outreach to at-risk addicts. Please consider having a look at their website and possibly making a donation, or maybe going out of your way to produce an image that may also draw attention to this topic.

About the author: Simon King is a London based photographer and photojournalist, currently working on a number of long-term documentary and street photography projects. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can follow his work on Instagram and you can read more of his thoughts on photography day-to-day over on his personal blog. Simon also teaches a short course in Street Photography at UAL, which can be read about here. The first half of this article is an excerpt from King’s personal blog.