Photojournalism is in trouble. Not just because its practitioners barely make a living anymore but also because issues of privacy and child protection are being muddled by irrational fears. Local councils have banned mobile phones with cameras in sports centres and swimming pools in case they are used to take photographs of children. Parents are banned from recording performances at schools in case the images fall into the hands of paedophiles. Taking spontaneous, natural, candid photos of children has become taboo.
The paranoia has infected the media. Regional newspapers no longer send photographers to cover the first day of school. Elsewhere conditions are so unworkable, the rest don't bother. Never held in the highest esteem to begin with, the death of Princess Diana demonised the legitimate press and paparazzi alike as ghouls beneath contempt. Photojournalists regularly report instances of physical and verbal abuse by strangers, sometimes while photographing their own children. In private, press photographers fear for their personal safety especially while covering disaster scenes or snatching pictures on courthouse steps. Body armour may become just another camera accessory while art galleries are raided because an artist displays a photograph of her children and anyone taking photographs in public places is under suspicion.
The next generation may not be able to look back at today as we now can see the past. Photographer Frank Suttcliffe (1853 - 1941) would be likely be lynched - rather than excommunicated - now for persuading Whitby children to pose for 'The Water Rats'. Children at play have been photographed since the birth of photography but our legacy to the future is being distorted and censored by a social McCarthyism.
About four years ago I took my young son and daughter to the new playground in my local park. Loafing there on the swings and roundabouts were some of the local 'yoof,' ten or so boys and girls aged about 13-16. There's precious else for them to do in this rural market town but to muck about on the play equipment provided for kids ten years younger. I know most them by sight so I had no concerns that their presence would hinder my kids' enjoyment. Just as in the sepia tinted days of my youth, the game du jour was breaking the branches off trees and whacking each other with them.
The was much swearing and jeering and smoking cigarettes, texting and shouting who's shagging who and "who's a fat slag?" Then the games veered into 'Jackass' territory. With egging on from the boys, two girls in the group went over to the main road beside the park and began lifting their tops at passing cars. By the hoots of motorists, I assumed they got their desired result. The boys reciprocated with a couple of half-hearted bared arses. Then the girls had another go. This game went on for about 10 minutes.
While I was spared any sight of adolescent mammary glands, moral reasoning cascaded down through my potential actions and their outcomes. I am a photographer. I go everywhere with my camera and for a moment I had a desire to make a picture of this. It would have been so easy. Naked breasts or not, imagine if you will a pair of likely Lolitas tempting/taunting us with their shirts open beside a busy road through a housing estate. Could this be beautiful? Interesting? Shocking? Illegal? That would be the publisher's or the viewer's decision. Certainly this situation has been imagined in thousands of variations in books, films, art and advertising campaigns. I only hoped to capture that moment faithfully but also in my head was the potential backlash. My name might be trashed in the tabloids. A reputation as a pervert to be later dredged up and recycled ad nauseum. Why did I want to take a picture of this?
Certainly it was valid photojournalism. If these kids caused an accident, it would be news. Was this a sign of more liberal attitudes about sexuality and body image than previous generations? Was it a distorted rite of passage, their discovery of the original girl- power? Was it what I thought it was; evidence that teenage females in rural areas have low self esteem. Their brass was likely fuelled by a few cans of cheap beer evidently purchased at Spar and inspired by the antics on 'reality' TV shows featuring ex-skatepunks in California and Essex girls in Ibiza. They were doing it to be adored, either by the boys or anonymous motorists.
As both a parent and a responsible journalist, I was concerned that publication of such a photo might only encourage this behaviour. It would be possible to take this picture without being seen, so I could not be held responsible for contributing to their behaviour. They were not being coerced, not physically at least, perhaps they were being sucked into the vacuum of self respect and values around them. But it was the knowledge of the ready market for such an image that held me back. I'm not an anthropologist but I don't need any academic justification for taking pictures. They were doing something of their own free will but, if they ever saw it in print, they might regret it for the rest of their lives.
If I captured the moment in the name of journalism, to be effective journalism it would have to be widely seen and I would have no control over what context and where. There is an excess already of 'Spring Break' magazines and videos where college students are entertained by the publishers at parties and encouraged by alcohol and agent provocateurs to be photographed topless. It has caused pain for many participants who regret it afterwards.
If it was splashed as a sex story in a newspaper or magazine, outrage would be stirred to sell more copies. Any serious discussion of gender politics or socio-economics by Germaine Greer on Newsnight would be drowned out. In the current climate, the questions might be more about me. This time the marble dropped out of the moral maze and landed on the self-censorship button.
Those young people will be in the park another day. They may never do it again but it may happen elsewhere. It probably happens more often than we want to know. A few months after this I was picking up prints from the chemist. A youth of 16 was ahead of me, a local boy and the salesperson knew him well. As she handed him his film she told him she hadn't made any prints because his film contained sexual images. He was told not to bring anything like it in again. And, she added, she knew who the girl was and although both are over age and it looked to be consensual, she didn't think it was a nice way to carry on. Next time she would call the police just to make sure. For the sake of a reliable document of teenage sexual morals at the turn of the century, I hope he keeps the negatives.