October 21, 2009

On Subway Buskers and Photography

I was waiting for the 8th Avenue- bound L train today at Union Station when I witnessed an interesting exchange. A tall African-American busker with long dreadlocks was playing a blistering funk solo on his electric guitar. Suddenly he began shouting at a young woman who had been trying to take his picture.

“Lady!” he shouted, “If I move away like this, it means I don’t want my picture taken. Do you understand that? People think they can just come down here and photograph me, I’ve got guys with video cameras shootin’ five, ten minutes of footage of me, and no one even has the decency to put a dollar in my case! At least show a little respect!! I’m not here to help you build your portfolio!”

Then, his tirade over, he composed himself and said, “Now, having said that, let me get back to work,” and resumed his playing.

Photography has always been a form of voyeurism. At its worst, it is a parasitic way of living off the talent, charisma, beauty, exoticism, or often the misfortune and tragedy of others. (The print journalist’s livelihood of capturing these people’s stories in words is no less exploitative.) Add to this dynamic the careerism that fuels the ambitious, image-collecting young photographer or filmmaker, or the glory-hungry journalist in search of a scoop, and you have a profession that—looked at in this light—can seem pretty lowly. What we do sometimes seems okay because our subjects, too, are in the game for personal fame or glory. It’s a symbiotic relationship. Sometimes we are even helping people by bringing wide attention to their plight, or winning recognition for some deserving but unsung hero.

In this subway scenario, though, the guitarist had it right. I admired his fierce desire to make a living through his obvious talent, not as a colorful tourist attraction. He understood the inherently exploitative nature of the photographer-subject relationship as it pertained to him at that moment, and he spoke out passionately and articulately against it.

True to New York City form, after turning their heads briefly to see what the commotion was about, everybody on the platform ignored both the musician and the chastised photographer. The urge to drop money in the musician’s guitar case rose up in me but then, as it often happens, my train arrived just at that moment.