Requiem for Hungarian Street Photography

I visited Hungary in the winter of 2009-10 on a two-week artist residency in the capital city of Budapest. My objective in this visit was to absorb some of the culture, history and feel of the city by walking its streets practicing what is know as “street photography.” The dead of winter with its short hours of daylight, and an introverted, brisk attitude pervading the city, wasn’t the best time to capture candid moments in the life of a people, as they scurried about on their errands, bundled against the bitter cold, heads down, and on their way. I therefore concentrated my photographic efforts more on formal exercises in composition using the urban landscape as inspiration, making images of architectural details juxtaposed with contemporary advertising graphics and graffiti. I did, however, mange to capture a good number of pictures of people along the way as well. One notable break in the bleak atmosphere was a raucous New Year’s celebration in the square near the soviet era hotel where our residency was located.

It would have been much more difficult to make similar pictures today. According this article, and others, Hungary has passed a law requiring that photographers obtain the permission of every person who is identifiable in a photograph taken in a public place. Obtaining the consent of everyone in a candid picture would be impossible in most cases, as well as impossible to enforce, but it renders street photography as I practiced it on my 2009-10 visit, effectively illegal.

I find this ruling incredibly ironic, given Hungary’s status as the birthplace of André Kertez, Robert Capa, and Brassaï, all of whom had a formative hand in the genre of street photography now outlawed in their country. The memories of these great Hungarian imagemakers, who’s work celebrated the freedom of expression, beautiful and poetic spontaneous moments of people captured on film, and in Capa’s case, documented the 20th century’s great battles against fascism, would be better served if this misguided law is quickly scrapped.

There seems to be a disturbing trend of tightening regulations against photography by private citizens in several countries, with the common justifications of preserving people’s privacy, and to prevent reconnaissance by terrorist organizations. These arguments ring false in consideration of the ubiquitous presence of police and private corporate controlled security cameras in public and quasi public spaces everywhere, especially given recent revelations of blanket US government surveillance even of people’s online activities and phone records. Real privacy no longer exists in people’s most intimate communications, and certainly not in urban public spaces, where anyone reasonably aware of their surroundings knows that their actions are constantly recorded by multiple security cameras and monitored by a wide variety of security agencies, public and private. Fear of the use of photography by terrorists is also illogical and overblown. Blanket high resolution photography of every conceivable location, angle, time, and season of pretty much every place on the planet are already available online to anyone who cares to look. Today’s would be terrorists simply need to search Flickr, Google Earth, Google Street View, or any number of other encyclopedic databases of online imagery to case potential target sites, on the off chance that they had anything to gain by the use of photography in some hypothetical attack.

The more realistic and common ethical dilemmas of street photography are complex, balancing people’s desire for dignity and a reasonable expectation of privacy with rights of free expression. Much of this negotiation takes place in the moment a photograph is taken, as a dance of social, optical, physical interaction that considers opportunity, consent, fear, communication, empathy, respect, personal psychology, attraction, confidence, intention, and an infinite variety of other factors in the decision of when it’s ok or not ok to make a photograph. This interaction is not substantively different than what happens any time one person encounters another in any public space, other than in the case of making a picture, the interaction is concentrated through a lens and rendered (hopefully) into a coherent two-dimensional visual record of that moment. From the point of view of a photographer, as well as a private citizen, who like anyone else, sometimes finds himself at the other end of a lens, it strikes me that this interaction is far too personal, ephemeral, and ubiquitous to ever successfully legislate, beyond the already existing framework of laws prohibiting harassment, assault, etc. In many years practicing the art of street photography in many different countries and contexts, I’ve found that confrontation between potential subject and photographer on the streets is very rare, and almost always solvable by negotiation between civilized, well meaning people. In the very unusual instance that conversation is not effective in diffusing a negative situation, no amount of legislation would improve the outcome.

While I am no legal expert, it would seem that laws prohibiting or regulating photography in public spaces may ease the discomfort of a few cameraphobic members of the public, giving them a legal weapon to wield against a perceived invasion of privacy by overly aggressive shutterbugs, but they they do nothing to curb the more pernicious and increasingly invasive level of surveillance that all of us have to endure in the contemporary world. What these regulations actually accomplish in practice is to remove the opportunity for artists to create a potentially historic visual record of contemporary urban life, prevent journalists from doing their job, and shift the balance of power from ordinary citizens over to police and government authorities, who’s reach into people’s private affairs seems to be constantly expanding on a global level. One obvious consequence of the new Hungarian law is to make it more difficult for citizens to record the actions of the police, and thereby hold them accountable to the rule of law. This is a serous erosion of people’s civil liberties, the implications of which far exceed the unnecessary suppression of a beloved and socially relevant art form.

Although I hear that Budapest in the summer is a wonderfully open & festive place that celebrates the season with a bacchanalian splendor reserved for those who have endured a long dreary winter, I won’t be returning there while any laws are in effect to restrict creative photography in public spaces. I can, however, offer this portfolio of images made during my one and only visit to the beautiful city of Budapest. It’s too bad that for now, such an exploration of its many charms is no longer possible.

Posted by scoopneil

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