Because I have started looking at my world through a lens, I have developed a tendency to see things in terms of light and composition. This doesn’t make me an expert or even particularly talented, of course. But it does mean that when I see certain scenes in my environment I see them as just that: scenes. I don’t always think of them in terms of the people in them, or even the events that I am recording.
I didn’t run across this scene by accident. I was meeting some committee members for a session at the negotiation table (for the last year I have been working for my union as a negotiator), and the first to arrive, also an amateur photographer, told me that he had seen this fellow sleeping in the church window at the Mary Queen of the World Cathedral, which is a major building in downtown Montreal. Had he had his camera with him, he said, he would have made the image himself (I believed him). Since I had my brand-new 7D with me, and was kind of showing it off, he suggested I should go see if the chap was still there. As you can see, he was.
The image is a good one, I think. It raises some obvious issues about homelessness and poverty, and with the approach of winter these issues will again take on greater and greater importance, as homeless men and women deal with the elements while the rest of us bundle into our cars and homes. The composition is meant to convey a sense of the larger institution compared with the smallness of the person. I flatter myself that it is fairly powerful.
However, the way I got it raises another issue for me. I am glad that I can’t identify this man from his face, because to me there is an issue of objectification here. Did I dehumanize this man by making this photo? Does the photo, and the manner in which I sought it out, respect the subject? I think that these are important questions, and I don’t claim to have complete answers to them. I often avoid taking photos of homeless people in the street because of such questions – they are not there for my amusement or the amusement of my audience, and I am not particularly interested in provoking a chorus of tut-tutting about the state of the economy today or the presence of social injustice and so on. On the other hand, I am interested in producing thought-provoking and hopefully evocative images, which convey a message or tell a tale. This is one such image.
It is worth saying that I am not a journalist, and I have few genuinely journalistic aspirations or motivations. And while this photo is in a photojournalistic vein, and I do make such images from time to time, I am much more interested in the image than the reporting. I am reluctant to claim that what I done here has journalistic merit, even if it does have some. The fact that this man is sleeping on the windowsill of a church speaks not only to the state of our society but also to the state of religion – in particular Christianity, whose originating texts both promote solidarity with the poor and oppressed and point out that the poor will always be with us. I can’t help wondering if he was shooed away later that morning by a church official of some sort.
So – should I have sought this image out once I was told about it? Should I have made the image once I had found it? should I have posted it online? Is it sufficiently respectful? Are there other questions I should be asking? Or am I really just blowing this whole thing way out of proportion?
We live in a society where there is a camera on every phone in every pocket, and on every building. I think that this fact, at least, makes this kind of questioning worthwhile — or is it?