White Guy Photography

This post is prompted by, but not exactly about, the Humans of New York (HONY) project/phenomenon.* I’ve been aware of HONY for a while as it’s been gathering steam and it’s never interested me. I’ve skimmed it a few times but each time I do, I have a gut-level reaction to it as “just another white guy photographing New York.”

*If anything, HONY is merely the straw which broke the camel’s back.

It took me a while to confirm that that was indeed my reaction to the project.

Thinking about it more, I’m realizing that it’s my reaction to a lot of photographic projects. Not just in New York but in general.

I’m allergic to “white guy photography.”

This is distinct from photography by white guys. What I’m having problems with is the approach which entails traveling, or moving, someplace with the intent of  documenting and photographing so as to “explain” or “capture” it for others. And the amount of privilege required to start such a project and make those kinds of claims is generally limited to (but not exclusively the domain of) white guys.

As much as this is a time-honored approach, I’m done with it.

I grew up looking forward to each new issue of National Geographic. The photography was great and it was a fantastic way to learn about the world. At the same time, even as a kid, I was aware of the colonial viewpoint in how it depicted different cultures, bodies, etc.*

*Note. This is not an anti-National Geographic rant either. That magazine is responsible for a lot of my visual education and it’s still a source of excellent photography. At the same time, I’ve come to realize its limitations, especially when the photos are decoupled from the articles.

As a child of the 80s, I got to watch its viewpoint shift from the exotic abroad to focus more on the US. In some ways this must have been an interesting editorial shift as it applied the colonial view to ourselves. However, since a lot of those features were on American cities, I can’t help but think that the result has been to view our cities, especially the poor, majority-minority ones as being dangerous or exotic.

But this was all in the 1980s. To see the same approach taken toward non-white or non-mainstream cultures now feels old and stale. And with almost everyone having the tools to document and represent themselves now, it starts treading into self-serving, patronizing, white-guilt behavior too.

The colonial view doesn’t work for me anymore.

At its best, I find it boring. At its worst, I find it racist. In almost all cases I’m tired of it.

I’m tired of the outsider view which treats cities as urban jungles full of diversity which have to be tamed. I’m tired of the idea that you can just drive through a culture snapping photos and claim to be presenting it to the rest of us. I’m tired of the idea that non-white or native people are exotic objects. I’m tired of the lack of context which results in the photos providing little to no information about the actual culture being depicted.

I’m tired of the way that, even today, so many westerners gush about this kind of photography.

I’m tired of the way that so many people still aspire to create this kind of photography.

We’ve already reached the point where most everything has been photographed. If our goal is to increase the sophistication with which we photograph, a large part of this has to include how we approach and view other cultures.

Which means that this rant in many ways is the other side of the blinders coin. So many of us only see—without realizing it—the white-male perspective that we’ve come to believe that that perspective is what photography is. We need to do better, whether it’s showing how other cultures are representing themselves or explaining why we’re bored of certain points of view.

Author: Nick Vossbrink

Blogging about Photography, Museums, Printing, and Baseball Cards from both Princeton New Jersey and the San Francisco Bay Area. On Twitter as @vossbrink, WordPress at njwv.wordpress.com, and the web at vossbrink.net

58 thoughts on “White Guy Photography”

  1. Sour grapes/jealousy? Who cares so you don’t like August Sander or Diane Arbus or Gary Winogrand or Mary Ellen Mark or Vivian Maier … that’s unfortunate! :-) I reckon that HONY guy is OK it’s fairly innocuous and pedestrian and populist but isn’t that the idea?

    “Oh! Oscar I wish I’d said that” – Whistler

    “You will James, You will!” – Wilde

    1. I take photos for myself. If the kids are in focus I’m happy. I’m not trying to go viral or even be an artist.

      I’d suggest though that you think more about the colonial viewpoint before listing photographers. None of the ones you mention fit in there.

  2. This post has been getting some attention and i want to add to the discussion. While I like the point that i think you are trying to make about a certain kind of photography, bearing a strong colonialistic foundation (it´s been appositely called ›Marco-Poloism‹ by this guy http://rbmntjs.tumblr.com/ in response to this article) and the artistic and moral flaws of this kind of photography, I disagree with the way you make that point.

    The term ›white people photography‹ is, other than ›Marco-Poloism‹ for example, both racist/sexist and unneeded. I´m a white guy and a photographer and I´m interested in trying to reflect on the world around me, both in- and outside my own social space. Whenever I do I try to be very responsible with the way i show people, spaces and stories, to a point that publishing anything is very difficult. At the same time I´m not responsible for colonialist, violent, racist, patriarchic photography (or other actions) that have been done by people bearing my skintone or gender in the past, present or future. But the term ›white people photography‹ states that: It associates a bad kind of photography and behavior (i agree that it´s bad) with a skintone and a gender. The quotation marks you use doesn´t make that go away, they barely give me the feeling that you didn´t want to insult, making me write a nice analytic little comment instead of just turning away.

    1. As a white guy, I’m not associating the colonial viewpoint with skintone and gender. I’m associating it with the privilege that corresponds to that skintone and gender. As some one who has that privilege, I feel the extra burden that comes with using it correctly.

  3. Thank you for this. I confess that I do follow and appreciate HONY, (I love NYC, what can I say?) but I completely agree with this post. I’m waiting for the barrage of people that won’t get it because they feel that, “YOU’RE the one being racist now! Reverse racism! :(”

    They act as if “racism” against whites is the highest form of oppression.

    1. I’m sort of curious where on facebook this got posted since I’m seeing a number of hits from there. Especially since this post is in no way about HONY besides my naval gazing into why I reacted the way I did.

  4. njwv – You seem to be an expert, so perhaps you could tell me if I’m A). doing “white-guy photography” or if I’m B). just a photographer who happens to be white (and who lives in the Philippines). If A, I’ll stick to self portraits and pictures of the few other white people who live here. Thanks.


    1. It’s about the framing of the project. If you moved there to photograph the natives, then we have problems. If you are photographing your home and are part of the community? No problems. That you’re thinking about how you represent your photo subjects at all though is a good sign.

      And I’d argue the expert thing. I’m just working through why/how I think and react to photography. This isn’t a “white guy photography sucks” post. It’s a “I just realized that I’m tired of this viewpoint” post. Usually, no one reads this blog besides my mom. :)

  5. You didn’t really explain how, or offer much in support of your conclusion that HONY and “white people” photographing other people is somehow an extent of colonialism. Extremely weak and convoluted post. You are just projecting your half-baked political views onto things that don’t really fit. I say that as a pretty leftist person cognizant of the historical and modern effects of colonialism. It’s a real issue. Someone taking pictures of various New Yorkers (where is the ideological motivation you are seeing??) doesn’t really fit into that. You are actually only undermining people’s efforts to really understand how colonialism really affects cultures and communities.

    1. My post was just “I find this boring because.” If I wanted to write about HONY, I’d have to actually look through it in detail. I’m not interested in it enough to do that. HONY triggered enough colonial-view white-privilege sensors for me that I felt I had to examine why I felt and reacted that way to a body of work. My examination into my reaction resulted in this post.

      Should I have made it clearer that this wasn’t about HONY itself? Probably. But oh well. It’s not like anyone reads my blog.

  6. Thanks for posting this. It’s worth calling out the (often unconscious) attitudes that drive what people choose to photograph, and the manner in which they photograph. Photography can be conducted in an insulting, power-dominant, aggressive way – it’s no accident we talk about “shooting” or “capturing” an image. It’s offensive enough in a personal setting where a family member insists on acting like a paparrazi towards the rest of the family; when it happens in the broader world, it can take on broader implications.

    I’ve been on a couple of photography “cultural tours” and it was interesting to see the full breadth of behaviors, from photogs who were subtle in image capture and respectful of the people they encountered, and those who treated it like a trip to the zoo, sticking huge lenses like erect penises at passers-by without so much as saying hello first, and generally being the embodiment of casual rudeness. (& yes, one of these was a Nat Geo tour. & actually the NG photog was great, very low key and attentive to the human issues, even if most of the ppl on the tour were not.)

    1. White guy naval gazing written by a white guy.

      If it were white guilt, I’d have to actually feel something about this stuff. Instead I’m just tired and bored. So many other things I’d rather look at on the web.

  7. I appreciate your point of view… I agree.
    ( I am a white european guy, btw :D ).

    Too much of the “photographic point of view” comes from the colonial age, and still much of these cliches are used by too many. It’s somehow hidden and difficult to be defined, but it’s there. I’ve been fighting those things for years. I wouldn’t have called it W.G.P., but I guess that’s only because I came from another country. I would have called it just colonial maybe.

    Luckily there is a lot that cannot be categorized as W.G.P. even in documentary photography.

    Andrea Calabresi – from Italy

    1. I’m trying to avoid taking on any specific projects unless I have an opportunity to sit down and really look though them. From what I’ve seen of Nelson’s project so far, it’s incredibly beautiful but the presentation triggers my spidey sense.

      1. I love Nelson’s work, but it’s like a fashion shoot for Vogue. I love photography of indigenous people, but it’s very hard to do from a “pure” point of view.

    2. I’m a little late adding to this thread. But – I found Nelson’s photography beautiful, but his website very disturbing. It took me a while to sort out all the issues. But is seems wrong to sound the death bell for these cultures. Many will change. But that does not mean they will “pass away.” And what you set up (especially given the popularity of Nelson’s book in the press) is an authenticity trap. The culture becomes inauthentic if it changes. It is a complicated situation. I have written in depth about it here:


      1. Thanks for this. That’s a fantastic post about Nelson and Curtis and the trap of representation and defining “authenticity.” Lots to think about there and your observations are extremely relevant to a lot of how we approach photographing cultures which aren’t our own.

  8. professional hard working photographers who are seriously interested in their subject matter, regardless of their skin color, don’t just go on some sort of ‘shooting safari’ Photographers are curious people and when they decide to pursue a subject matter seriously they tend to embed themselves in it. Trust and relationships with their subject matter is key to getting great shots and I don’t think you are paying any credence to the process of establishing those connections in the process of making meaningful work.
    This is the furthest thing from colonialism. There will always be curious outsiders venturing into other cultures to learn more and as long as there is trust and a connection between the photographer and the subject I don’t ever see that as a bad thing.

    1. Just to be clear, I think that it is possible to shoot with a ‘colonialistic’ hell even racist mentality and it does happen but it totally comes across in the work.

      Furthermore you do bring up some overarching points about race/class in the history of photography and journalism…and even art history.

      1. Indeed. There’s probably a third post in this where I make it clear that I’m not saying that Robert Frank, Steve McCurry, or Sebastiaõ Salgado or any of the other greats in this department are awful or boring. It’s important to acknowledge that their kind of access and viewpoint has produced wonderful, influential work. At the same time, I think I’ve decided that that vein is pretty much mined out.

        It’s also very interesting to read this McCurry interview as he muses about how the world has changed since he started.

  9. ::points finger:: Karl put a link in FB.

    Personally, I’m a big fan of colonial “capture the exotic natives” photography. Of all the photo museums in Paris, it’s the Albert Khan I am continually drawn to.

    For me the question is “Why is this form of outsider photography so popular?” In my experience, the appreciation/interest in these images crosses cultural boundries. I think it may have somethng to do with the otherness of the images reinforcing one’s own tribal ties.

    1. Oh indeed. Heck, I even like Femmes Algériennes.

      Having thought about it more (and being forced to think about it more in responding to comments) I should probably write another post explaining how I’m not ripping the past projects or photographers. It’s the projects from people trying to be the next Steve McCurry which bug me.

  10. Wonderful discussion! I think many of us “white guy photographers” do protest too much.
    What you offer njwv is a consciousness raising for yourself and other photographers white or otherwise. To be aware of what and how or even why we are photographing certain subject. How are they perceived as works of art, etc?

    I have follow Humans of New York for a while now, what I enjoy is the comments, the photography is good in a standard kind of why. It is posed and composed… not street photography.

    Thank you for your thoughts, thank you for making this guy think about what he is seeing and why he maybe going out to photograph with no purpose in mind.

    There is a whole course discussion going on here. I came through the second White guy photograph blog… just to catch up!

  11. Finally, a white person who can actually be critical of the white gaze as a tool of imperialism / colonialism / othering! Don’t listen to the other white morons criticizing you. They just hate the idea that they can’t parachute into a community and have a RIGHT to make money off pics of brown kids. Fuck ’em.

  12. Your post takes me back to a discussion I once had in Bamako, Mali with the Director of the Recontres de Bamako, African Photography Biennale. The question he posed was, “Is there anything like an African Photography or Asian photography, as opposed to say European photography?” My response was that the difference was mainly that of privileges – money, access, institutions etc etc (I am a brown Indian part time photographer)

  13. new review about jimmy nelson’s photos: Against all the odds, tribal peoples are still here and proud, but they are struggling to survive. The tribes in Nelson’s book face constant threats of displacement, murder, racism, or forced ‘development’, yet the average viewer would have no inkling of the suffering behind every dramatic print. https://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/julia-lagoutte/tribal-peoples-aren%27t-passing-away-they-are-fighting-against-brutal-oppres

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