Are Security Concerns Influencing the Art of Photography?

As I indicated earlier in previous articles, I have been thinking about taking different pictures since I probably won’t be traveling as much overseas.  Some of my old-time favorite photographers have been referred to as “street photographers”.  Photographers like Robert Doisneau and Henri Cartier-Bresson are well-known for capturing the real lives of typical people.  Since these types of shots are very similar to many of the street shots that I have most enjoyed while traveling internationally, I have been considering doing street photography (or at least the equivalent for today) around where I live; but, now I’m concerned.  In the first 11 days of 2011 we have had 11 homicides in the county where I live … many out and on the streets.

I am not sure that there is much to photograph out and on the streets in the suburbs like where I live.  I try to take frequent walks through our neighborhood when the weather is nice and I always take a camera and rarely see anything remarkable to photograph.  As an alternative I have been thinking about driving to other areas where there is a lot more life occurring out on the streets and where the houses and buildings are older with more character, but these are the areas where crime and homicides are on the rise … some of them getting quite close to our neighborhood.  One of the problems is that you never know how someone is going to react to being photographed.  He could have just committed a crime around the corner and doesn’t want a record of his being in the neighborhood, and he might be packing a gun.

Another type of photography that I appreciate is landscape photography … natural landscapes.  Since street photography doesn’t look very promising, I started trying to find locations not too far away where I could do landscape photography.  But, since I had found that street photography wasn’t too safe, I decided to investigate the safety of landscape photography.  I found that it can be equally bad.  One of my current favorite photographers (who I won’t name here for obvious reasons) told about one of his experiences of being followed back to his car by two guys with the intent to rob him while he was out taking landscape photographs.  He surprised me when he mentioned that he now carries a gun when out taking pictures.

OK, what about in Washington D.C. around the monuments and government buildings?  Well, this type of photography has another aspect of concern, and that is restrictions on photographing certain buildings and areas.  Ever since the rise in terrorist attacks, many major cities have cracked down on photographers so one has to be careful of what he shoots, even if it is only a building.  You can see a summary of this situation if you click here.

The above security concerns are affecting photography equipment.  In the current photography blogs and forums, I now find that many photographers have new constraints on their camera bags.  It used to be that it only had to be big enough to hold their gear and be padded, water-repellent, etc. for the protection of their gear.  Now it needs to not look like a camera bag since they don’t want to draw attention to the fact that they are photographers and that they are carrying $1000s of gear.  This concern is also now spilling over to the actual cameras themselves … the smaller it is, the easier it is to conceal.

A bigger concern, other than my security concerns, is the impact that the above changes might be having on the art of photography.  I am getting concerned that the nature of photography is being influenced by security concerns.  I believe that the nature of what people photograph is changing and that future historians will not have a rich collection of today’s equivalent of street photographs to look at to see what life was like in our neighborhoods.  The only thing they will have are the newspaper crime scene photos.  While there is a preponderance of cameras and people taking family pictures today with their phones, etc. very few of those photographs will be preserved for posterity.  The true photographers are changing their subject matter.  We now have large collections of natural landscapes as they occur within our park systems, and we have more and more fashion shots, and we have plenty of wildlife shots.  What we don’t have are large collections of photos about the normal lives of people as it occurs within our towns and cities where the majority live.  We also still have a large number of photographs being taken in tourist locations around the world, well at least outside the U.S. … but that might be changing, note the last paragraph.

While the above may only be a concern of mine and be difficult to prove, I would like to use just one photographer as an example.  I have not communicated with him about this but take a look at his web site, Boxed Light.  He is what I consider to be an excellent photographer, who is not a pro.  He professes to enjoy shooting everything and says that he cannot be labeled as to type of photography.  But, look at his opening page which is a good collection of many of his excellent photographs.  What do you notice?  Yes, he shoots quite a variety of subjects … but they are all safe subjects.  I contend that his web site is an example that photographers are shifting to artsy and safe subjects.   Another source for watching the changing nature of photography subjects is to look at the New York Times pictures as shown on Lens over a period of time.  While they still continue to show the horrors from around the world, their pictures from within the U.S. are changing … just an opinion of mine.

What about you?  Do you shy away from certain subjects?  I know that it is a concern of mine and that I’m still searching for safe future photographic venues of interest where I can go and take pictures for the fun of it.

PS, for those of you who recently toured in Tunisia with me, all is not well in Tunisia … there have been riots and demonstrations in various areas with many killed.  Click here.


  1. mirellamccracken

    Hi John
    I love your blog!
    I want to tell you that we are in Sudan and the video on my blog is from the suburb of Khartoum.
    Am going to read your blogs now….


  2. slpmartin

    I think it is more difficut to get certain types of photos on the street for many of the reasons you have noted…people are more suspicious of people with a camera…the fear mongers have done an excellent job.


  3. Seasweetie

    Interesting thoughts, John – I too greatly appreciate the work of early street photographers and would love to make my own mark alongside their footsteps, but I am very hesitant about photographing people. The whole concept of having to have a release if you want to use any “people” shots in commercial work has always been a challenge for me. If I see a beautiful child at a festival and take a candid picture, do I approach the parent and say, “Hey, I just took some pictures of your daughter; I might like to use them commercially. Can you sign this form giving me permission to do so?” That, to me, opens a whole can of worms and is more awkward than my shy nature allows. I have focused on landscapes and the beauty in the ordinary in most of my work, but even this spring, when I was walking through my own neighborhood taking photos, several people and cars were watching me – one circling around the block – to determine if I was doing something suspicious. And as you imply, with the climate of suspicion and rising security concerns (both personal and otherwise), I expect these issues will becoming more and more prominent for casual and aspiring photographers.