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Street Photography & Dehumanization

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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.