PORTLAND, Maine — I’ve been at this for a long time, something like 25 years, and it’s not the first time readers have questioned a photo I’ve made.
It happens all the time, and I think it’s helpful to talk about it.
This latest kerfuffle comes with a picture I took Tuesday morning, of a presumably homeless person sleeping under a plastic tarp, beneath one of Portland’s Valentine’s Day Bandit’s red paper hearts.
Here’s why I shot that photo and why I’ll continue to make similar ones in the future.
It’s my job.
As a photojournalist, I make pictures of things as they are. I don’t direct, I don’t ask people to “do it again” for the camera and I don’t alter scenes I see through my lens. I record visual facts as I find them for what’s often called a first draft of history.
Legally speaking, I, like anyone, can photograph anything I can see from public property. But, of course, there’s more to it than that.
I made the picture because the juxtaposition of misery and joy told the story of a city that is sometimes a little too self-congratulatory about its own quaintness while perhaps not working as hard as it should to house its citizens.
That’s it. I harbored no other motivation.
I felt the image did not exploit the human subject, as you could not see a face or even a single body part. It was just the outline, the suggestion of a person under there. The scene reminded me of similar pictures I’d seen taken during the Great Depression, or of unattended corpses left on porches in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina.
The picture wasn’t featured prominently in the original story. It appeared well down the page, as a closing reminder that, despite the holiday, some people are cold and lonely out there. The image had a caption acknowledging the humanity of the person under the tarp.
Following the story’s publication, nobody complained.
Questions only arose after it was posted, out of context, on Instagram. It was used as the first image of a slideshow about the Valentine’s Day Bandit without explanation or its original caption.
That was a mistake, and the post has since been deleted.
Using that particular image to kick off an otherwise lighthearted story made some folks on the internet angry. I get that. It felt weird.
But others question the photo itself and whether I should have made it at all.
As I said at the top of this piece, that’s nothing new.
I started my photojournalism career at a small daily newspaper. It was back during a more analog age when people had to complain about my work via letters, stamps and envelopes, rather than a few keystrokes and an emoji or two.
They’d complain — and they had every right to do so — about all sorts of things. Usually, they felt I was promoting some kind of dangerous behavior.
Every hot summer, I’d photograph local kids jumping from a bridge somewhere, into cooling waters below them with a splash. Then, I’d count the days before the letters started coming claiming my photos were adding to the delinquency of children. It never took long.
As I told them, and as I still believe, kids have jumped into the water from tall objects since the beginning of hot summers — and they do it whether my camera and I are there to see it or not.
Not to be too flippant, but it’s the same with people who are homeless in Portland. They suffer and die even when there’s no photojournalist there to see it happen. If anything, I want my pictures to remind readers that these humans, sleeping in tents and under tarps all over the city, exist.
Portland is not all charming cobblestones, condos and foodie palaces. There are real people here, not just tourists and bankers.
I will continue to make pictures of the city, as it really is, and that’s going to include homeless people. If their faces appear in my frame, I will do my best to get their names. If not, I’ll let them sleep.
But I’ll be a photojournalist, doing my best, until I’m dead.