Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

"Street Photography & Dehumanization" by Meena Krishnamurthy


Meena Krishnamurthy is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Manitoba. She works in political philosophy. Her current work focuses on exploitation, coercion, oppression, and gossip. Issues that lie at the intersection of philosophy of language and political philosophy have recently come to fascinate her. 

There are many aspiring photographers who take photographs of vulnerable people, people who are down on their luck, often poor and homeless, and label their images as “street photography.” There are many things that might be morally suspect about street photography that involves vulnerable people. One idea that I would that like to develop here, using Robin Jeshion’s recent discussion of slurs, is that these types of pictures are dehumanizing of their subjects.
Jeshion argues that, among other things, slurs are identifying. When someone says, “X is S”, where S is a slur such as “faggot”, Jeshion argues that it
“does not simply ascribe a property to the target, here, that of being gay. It classifies the target in a way that aims to be identifying. In calling someone “faggot”, the homophobe takes a property that he believes someone to possess and semantically encodes that it is the, or a, defining feature of the target’s identity. As such, it is used to shape the target’s social identity, and so to dictate how others ought to treat, regard, think of, and respond to its target.”
I would like to argue that something similar holds true in the case of street photography of the poor. Typically, what we see is a single shot of a poor person in a destitute situation, lacking proper shelter or appropriate clothing, for example. This is often all that we see of that person. As a result, the picture typically works not just to ascribe the property of being poor to the individual in the photograph but to define her in terms of her poverty. “Being poor” is represented as her most important or defining feature. In this way, street photographs of the poor are identifying much in the way that Jeshion purports slurs to be. And, because the picture is identifying, in Jeshion’s sense, it encourages us to treat and regard the subject of the photo merely as “poor”.
Jeshion argues that slurs are morally objectionable because they are dehumanizing. Part of her view is that, outside of being identifying, slurs are group designating and expressive of contempt. Slurs identify the target as being part of a particular social group such as Gay People. They are also essentializing: slurs represent the target’s group membership as defining what the target is, as a person. They also express that the target, because of her group membership, is worthy of contempt and ought to be considered inferior. It follows then, on her view, that using a slur says that what the person is, in her essence, is worthy of contempt and of being regarded as inferior. This is dehumanizing, on Jeshion’s view. I agree. This is dehumanizing. However, I don’t think we need to point to contempt or group designation to understand why slurs or photographs might be dehumanizing.
To regard and treat someone as having full humanity is to regard and treat her in ways that recognize her as a full or whole person, that is, as a person with a complex history and life and a variety of feelings and experiences. Street photography that involves the poor is dehumanizing because it fails to take into account the full or whole person. It fails to take into account the subject’s complexity and reduces her to a particular feature – namely, “being poor”. In representing the subject in this way, we are entreated to regard and treat her as “poor,” not as a whole person. This is dehumanizing. To summarize, if a photograph reduces its subject to just one feature or property, and fails to treat her as a complex person, that is dehumanizing, even if the photograph does not represent that feature as being worthy of contempt[1] or as designating membership in a particular group.[2]
Street photography does differ from slurs in at least one respect. Slurs are by their nature dehumanizing, in the sense that I have described. They always identify, in Jeshion’s words, the person that they are applied to. They always work to reduce a person’s identity to a mere property such as “gay”, precluding a more complex understanding of the individual. For this reason, slurs will always be dehumanizing, on my view. Street photography, however, can avoid being dehumanizing by capturing the deeper and more complex facets of its subject. Photo essays, for example, which strive to depict and capture the subject’s broader narrative, her deeper experiences and feelings, and who she is as a person, can be viewed as an attempt to get at or communicate something about the whole person. Street photography is not doomed to being dehumanizing.
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Thanks go to Esa Diaz-Leon for the invaluable discussion that led to my writing this piece and for commenting on an earlier draft. Thanks also to Christy Mag Uidhir for inviting me to participate in this wonderful blog.
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[1]Indeed, street photography of the poor might represent its subjects as being worthy of compassion rather than contempt.
[2] Street photography may also be essentializing, in a sense close to Jeshion’s, by suggesting that “poor” is just what that person is as a person (though note that group designation isn’t important here).  This may also contribute to the dehumanizing effect.

9 thoughts on “"Street Photography & Dehumanization" by Meena Krishnamurthy

  1. It seems to me that all possible photographs of any given person must fail to “take into account the full or whole person” and so I'm worried that your position commits you to the view that all photography is dehumanizing.

    (Random aside: Is there a non-speciesist alternative to “dehumanizing”? Perhaps “depersonizing,” but it doesn't exactly roll off the tongue.)


  2. David, thank you for the comment. It is probably the biggest worry that arises with what I have written so far. Here's the beginning of an answer. I may indeed be committed to the claim that a single photograph of an individual is dehumanizing. What I want to argue is that there is at least a tight connection (not necessarily a necessary connection) between single shots and dehumanization. I am willing to grant that there may be instances where a single picture does manage to convey something more complete about its subject. If it does, then it isn’t dehumanizing. However, I do think this is extremely difficult to accomplish with a single photograph of a subject. And, I do wonder whether it is possible at all. I need to think about this further and to decide whether I also wish to make the stronger claim of necessity with regards to single shots and their being dehumanizing.

    Furthermore, something that I didn't write in the post, because I wasn't entirely sure about it at the time, is that the dehumanization may not always be wrong. Or, alternatively, it might be prima facie wrong, but may not be all things considered wrong. I would like to argue for a political account of when dehumanization is morally permissible. It may be morally permissible to abstract from the particular humanity of individuals if it is politically useful. It can be morally permissible because in aiming to do something political, the photographer is actually showing respect for their humanity in a different sense, that is, by aiming to rectify the situation so as to ensure that their humanity is genuinely respected in the broader social systems that surround them. In other words, I would want to give a political account of when photographs are objectionably dehumanizing. This is something I need to develop further. I am in the process of doing so.

    Thanks again for the great comment.


  3. Hi Meena:

    Consider a photo of Jen playing soccer in a soccer uniform on a soccer field. Would that count as dehumanizing Jen on your construal? In your comment above, you make a distinction between ok and not-ok dehumanization. Would it be dehumanization of the ok variety?


  4. Carl – Thanks for pushing me further on this question. This is very much still a work in progress and I need to think about all of this more. I realize after more thought that there may be something else going on that I didn’t quite get at in the post. I have suggested that a photograph is dehumanizing if it fails to represent the whole person. I now realize that it is not just failing to represent the whole person that is bothering me, but also the tendency of certain street photographs to “other” its subject. On my (now more developed) view, a photograph is dehumanizing if it fails to represent the whole person and it “others” the person. Turning back to street photography of the poor, this sort of photography represents the person not only only as “poor” and, in turn, not as a whole person but also as something other than a person. This is dehumanizing, on my view.

    To take a concrete example, consider Steve McCurry’s photographs. McCurry's pictures while lovely and utterly beautiful strike me as dehumanizing. They depict people of colour (whether in India or in various part of Africa) as “exotic” and in doing so also represent such people as something very different than the usual “human” or something like that. I think the same may be true of much of amateur street photography as well. So, I think that what is bothering me is not only failing to represent the whole person but also the tendency of street photography to “other” the person. Of course, I still think that dehumaniziation may be permissible under some conditions, such as the political conditions, I mentioned above.

    Turn now to the soccer play. I don’t think the picture is dehumanizing. In most cases, athletes are depicted as representing the best of what being human is (strong, fast, disciplined, etc.). They are in a sense represented as being superhuman, as humans with extraordinary and unusual abilities that enable to them to do things that ordinary people cannot. In this case, something in the opposite direction of “othering” happens – call it “idolizing” – where a person is represented as being a God or God-like.


  5. I meant also to say, with respect to the soccer player, that this sort of dehumanization (via idolization) is not objectionable or at least not obviously so.


  6. Meena, thanks for your responses, which have helped me to understand your position. I think your idea is really interesting and that you are on to something important here.

    What do you think about other kinds of depictions? Do paintings have the same capacity to dehumanize? What about novels, short stories, poems, songs? Or is photography potentially dehumanizing in a special way?


  7. David – Thanks for this. I do think that other depictions can be dehumanizing. However, photographs may have a greater tendency – because of the limited perspective that photographs often offer – than other mediums of representation to be dehumanizing .


  8. I wonder if the view of photography as a form of perception interacts your position. According to the view I have in mind, seeing a photo of X is a way of seeing X (whereas seeing a painting of X is not normally a way of seeing X). Perhaps, when I show X to you, and let you see X, but I fail to reveal the full person, then I am more likely to dehuamize X–whereas, when I merely depict X (without letting you see X), as in a painting, it is less likely to be dehumanizing of X.


  9. Dehumanisation is something people do to other people and is not therefore an intrinsic property of photographs or of photography. Photography simply depicts things, but it is culture more generally that provides the contexts and analytical tools that allow photographs to be used as symbolic artefacts (not just depictive ones) and to be interpreted (in this case as dehumanising). Dehumanisation is a culturally enabled attribution and not an intrinsic attribute of photographs.

    “Street photography that involves the poor is dehumanizing because it fails to take into account the full or whole person.”

    It is true that photographs do not take whole people into account, but we need to be clear about what we mean by this. Photographs are not accounts, which means to say that they are not fundamentally linguistic entities – although they are often apt for linguistic use. A description is not a story. Nonetheless descriptions can often be excellent prompts or components of stories, and as the article points out, groups of photographs – photo essays for example – can offer greater dimension to the representation of a person and thereby suggest more of their character – at least for people equipped with the necessary interpretive skills.

    But the point that needs emphasis here is that street photography is not dehumanising per se. It is culture (i.e. people and the things they do) that dehumanises people most often by attributing non-human characteristics to them. Moreover, the culturally acquired skills that allow us to say that another human being is “poor” or “ugly” or “uncouth” are precisely the same skills that allow us to say that a photograph is dehumanising. Both are attributions and not properties of photographs or people.


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