Protecting Public Spaces Means Protecting Controversial Street Photographers Like Tatsuo Suzuki

Suzuki isn't the worst example of public disturbance. Far worse is the scourge of political correctness.

Fujifilm recently removed a controversial video ad for the release of their Fuji X100V due to negative backlash from viewers on YouTube. The video featured famed street photographer Tatsuo Suzuki, talking about his work along with footage of him getting extremely close to his subjects on the streets to take their pictures, ala Bruce Gilden.

Many viewers were unhappy with his intrusive style and claimed that what he was doing was an invasion of privacy and just plain offensive. The news also made the rounds in popular photograph forums, where the discussion of ethics in street photography were even more nuanced and critical, with many commenting to the effect that art shouldn't be the end which justify the means. In other words, art or the pursuit of art, is no excuse to be offensive, invasive, disrespectful, etc.

Others accused Suzuki of exerting his hypermasculinity, in reference to his close encounters images featuring his female subjects. The accusation here suggests that while taking photos at close proximity is already offensive and unjustifiable, a male forcing his way, uninvited, into close proximity with a female subjects, constitutes another offense which borderlines on crossing legal boundaries, if the argument is to be framed within the scope of infringement of civil rights or even sexual harassment.

But there's one crucial aspect of this recent controversy surrounding Suzuki that hasn't been part of the overall debate. What's missing is a discussion of public spaces and what rights people have (and don't have) when they step foot out of their homes and interact on city streets and other "free" environments which don't fall under the domain of private property or regulatory bodies, where people are generally allowed to go and be without restriction or very few restrictions, i.e., our beaches, our parks, promenades, sidewalks and streets, to name a few.

For the sake of argument, I'm not defending or denouncing Suzuki's methods. I can tell you that as a photographer that I don't operate the same way he does when photographing people in public spaces. I can tell you that I'm not willing to get as close as he does, to step in front of people or to hinder their movements temporarily for the sake of a photograph. That's just not me. My style is as close to the spirit of the Prime Directive from Star Trek as humanly possible.

But this doesn't prevent people from levelling the same accusations against me that Suzuki is facing now. In fact, I've encountered some of these first-hand, in the streets and Online. I'm definitely not alone in this experience. Getting push-back and negativity from people in the streets is a common topic and occurrence for street photographers. And what about for photojournalists and the media at large?

I want to point out here that there's more at stake than an Online trending public outcry against a photographer who has a knack for pissing people off. At risk is the freedom to photograph in public spaces, a right that is usually protected for the benefit of journalism. See the U.S. Constitution as an example, or the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which deems freedom of information and of the Press as a basic human right.

I believe that many critics of Suzuki not only take issue with his methods (the means) but also with his final images (the ends). I also tend to believe that people in general, especially in the West, don't want their pictures taken by strangers. There's an inherent suspicion and hostility against those who take pictures of people in public spaces, regardless of intent. I think this embedded itself into the mix, if only as one ingredient, in the outrage against Suzuki. But there's another trend at play, in my view, that of a politically correct agenda fuelled by the current, and dare I say temporary, moral outrage.

The moral outrage

I know next to nothing about Suzuki's personal life. I'm unaware, for example, if he's ever been charged with a crime related to his photography. I'm unaware if any male or female subject of his - after being photographed by him - have come forward and lodged a legal or civil case against him. I'm unaware if he's ever been barred from certain public spaces or private premises due to his photography and methods. I'm unaware if he's ever been shunned prior to this current controversy, which was created and sponsored by Fujifilm, who likely screened Suzuki's past, if only superficially, to prevent running into an obvious controversy which would negatively affect their business. One thing I'm positive of, if he had been guilty of any of these things, we would have read about it. Somebody would have reported on it. Or somebody will report on it, if there's anything newsworthy, which I highly doubt.

Let's put things into perspective for a moment. This Suzuki "controversy" won't kick off a Me Too movement in the world of photography. Tatsuo Suzuki is no Harvey Weinstein - despite some people wanting him to be in order to justify their politically correct outrage. For those critics of Suzuki who aren't as ravenous, there's still a sad commentary to be made about political correctness run amok.

As a photographer, especially one who loves street photography, I find this Online politically correct mob behavior disturbing. And stupid in the sense that any mob can be when given the chance. And not only because events like this potentially create a hostile environment for me and other photographers around the world. The bigger picture is that the morally outraged are inadvertently threatening their own rights in public spaces, their own rights to use DSLRs, point and shoots, and their smartphones for the purposes of photography. Because once this kind of political correctness takes hold of the legal system, there's a price to be paid by all. The result is a lack of freedom most of us take for granted. The kind of rights we'd never dream that could be taken away by modern democracies.

The question I have for those who've been introduced to Suzuki's provocative style of image-making via this controversy, and think he's intrusive, obnoxious, potentially abusive, offensive, and possibly ethically and morally wrong, maybe even guilty of sexual harassment, is this:

What are you going to do about it?

My second question is, what would you like to have done about it - if you're personally not going to lift a finger because it's easier to complain about it Online and leave the legwork to others?

I'll tell you what I'm going to do about it, since I vehemently disagree with Suzuki's critics about most of their sentiments and comments. I'm going to continue to take pictures of people in public spaces. I'm going to continue being a photographer, which involves me venturing out and photographing strangers to the tune of thousands of people every year. Sometimes I'll even get close like Suzuki, like in the pictures I'm sharing here. I'll continue to speak up for photographers when I feel they're getting the wrong end of the stick - photographers like Suzuki, regardless of how "offensive" he may be in the eyes of the public. I will continue to refuse to jump on the politically correct bandwagon, which on a good day is nothing more than a shitwagon of opinions careening out of control without a coachman. I'll continue to talk about the rights of photographers and of the public, because these rights are always shared among us, despite how we decide how to exercise them individually.

For me, this Fujifilm-Suzuki controversy mimics the same age-old argument used against artists since the dawn of time. Somebody created an offensive piece of art. Somebody's methods are unscrupulous. The artist must believe the ends justify the means, that he or she is above the law or above the morals and ethical standards of the day, society be damned.

Has said artist committed a crime? Has said artist really hurt society by his or her art? Isn't it because of society, the good, bad, and the ugly, that such art, artists, and methodologies emerge? Who are the real victims here, if any, if anyone truly gives a shit? For lack of any substantial evidence against Suzuki, there are no victims. There's only controversy, fuelled by the torch-waving by the Easily Offended. Nothing more.

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