As an intermittent street photographer, for some time now, I have been considering the photographic documentation of beggars. They regularly come into my scope as I shop. In fact where there is heavy foot traffic, such as temples and shopping centres, which perhaps serve the same purpose to people of different spiritual needs, beggars, with their tin bowls and disfigured limbs on display are to be found.
My dilemma is to do with the ethical nature of objectifying these prone subjects. Yes they are unlikely to get up and chase me or do me harm for such an activity, although the well known stories of beggar gangs, managed by mobster type bosses are always present.
Then I question the best perspective and framing. As most of the potential subjects are prostrate, should I sit my camera on the pavement to reflect their perspective of the world. Or does the perspective of, in this case, a 5ft 11, white western male engage more empathy from the viewer. Should the framing be tight around the subject or provide a background context and what is the value of that context.
Politically what message will such images send. I am after all a foreigner, a guest in a developing country, albeit one whose rampant economy is dominant on a global scale. Around this question I began to formulate the view that I should document these people. They live in a nation that has the capacity to do more. They live in a culture that promotes economic development above social and cultural development, like the vast majority of Asia and, in this case, they exist on the periphery of a city that is proud of such a distasteful reputation.
Over the past ten years I have been at pains to present a balanced view of the China in my photography and writing and feel that these shot do not distort that balance. Thinking of the individuals within my frames, an argument, of course, can be mounted that they are in the public domain, but some sensitivity is surely required. Should I seek permission, as I did in one instance, and received a positive reply, but in doing so loose that spontaneous quality, that to my mind, is a strength of street photography. I did, however, make a point contributing to their collection bowl, which is likely to get a positive response most times, while also easing my conscience, but at the same time makes my presence known.
In the end I’ve opted for a passer by perspective, on the basis of reflecting a common viewpoint and framed and cropped the images to provide some context. But my opinion on the ethics of such a project is not settled.