It was late August 2016, and I was wondering around a town near lake Como with my camera. I had spent three hours wandering around churches and piazzas and markets searching for the perfect shot, and I wasn’t happy. I stopped in the shade of a cafe to scroll through the stuff I’d taken. A crowd of tourists had bubbled past in front of a giant church ahead of me, another was on its way, but in between the two groups, like a held breath, was a shot.
I, as the photographer, have used these lovers. Undeniably. I could have asked them beforehand and proceeded to photograph them in a close-up, to paint that intense, personal love - then send them the photo, and possibly feature on their instagram feeds. I could have grabbed my wide-angle lens and photographed the grandiose church behind them, before airbrushing them out in post.
Instead, greedily as always, I chose both. I did it for purely aesthetic reasons - I like the way they stand both as the focus and the footnote of the image; both in spite of the building behind them, and yet in a twisted way, a reminder of the church’s wider control over love and marriage. I like the fact you can neither see the spires and domes of the church, nor the detail on their faces, the exact emotion shared between two people in love. Even things like where they’re sitting on the bench or the woman’s leaning, diagonal posture, are both ever-so-slightly subversive compared to the straight lines and centred order of the architecture behind them. I tried to capture the intensity of the public-private - that snap that vanishes as soon as a gaggle of tourists swarm by, or someone spots the camera…
And that last point is the crux of the issue. I like this photo. I’m rarely happy with my shots, but this one I like, primarily because it inspires debate in those who see it. For some people, this is a cute (or sickly) moment captured by a photographer. For others, this is an intrusion, an invasion of privacy.
The debate centres around the ethical boundaries of photography. You see this a lot with photojournalism - shots like the ‘starving Sudanese child’, ‘Napalm Girl’ and ‘Doomed Subway death’ (I’ll let you google them, they’re all pretty depressing unsurprisingly) are all great examples. Should you intervene, should you ask for consent, can the means justify the ends, when it comes to the impact a photo may have? Is it worth the possibility of changing public opinion over a war or a famine, if it violates one person’s consent? Is it possible to respect consent and also respect key tenets of photojournalism or even art in general?
Debates over consent are utterly integral to photography and videography, at every level. Should I have asked for consent for this photo? What about if I had never published it? What if I made money off it (I didn’t, don’t worry)? What if I smooth a model’s skin or airbrush out a grey hair or a blackhead? What if I coincidentally change someone’s skin tone through video colour-grading?
For the record, I am certainly not suggesting that my photo of Italian lovers comes close to the ethical dilemmas of the aforementioned photos, or indeed has the same impact on a viewer, but it is telling that even such an innocuous shot as mine raises the same questions. It’s an incredibly complex issue, and one which, in my opinion, pivots on that shaky compromise between intention and effect, and both are incredibly difficult to convey and predict respectively.
I see this conveyance and prediction as part of the fundamental challenge and excitement of making art. As a photographer or videographer, you must neither dismiss consent outright, nor cling to it and forsake the opportunity to effect change or produce powerful art.
You are almost guaranteed to annoy or even offend someone. But that too, is part of what makes taking photos and making videos such an interesting thing to do...