There is one thing I am sure about, that photography is special, magical, wonderful. It allows us to keep loved ones with us forever. It stops time. It’s a time travel machine. It’s something that for most of humankind, didn’t exist. (It’s only 182 years old, this photographic medium. Before 1839, no one had ever seen a photograph!)
But we do have photography and we can do so much with it. We can use it to express ourselves as art photographers. To show how we see, to showcase our vision of the world. Or we can document life, the people and places most special to us, so that other people–family and friends–will always know who we were, what we were about, what excited us while we walked this earth.
There’s absolute joy when I am making photographs. Everyday, I create photos for my RoyStryker.com blog, I make photographs of people I meet, and I document my family, like my partner MaryLee taking care of some friends’ chickens, and collecting her first-ever egg! (Did you know chickens are extremely affectionate and like to be touched?)
So, it saddens me when I get an email from a mother requesting I remove a photograph from my web site, a photograph of her two sons fishing that is as classic as a Norman Rockwell painting, one I’ve shown before, but I won’t post here now out of respect for her request.
I can’t help but think her request comes out of a place of fear.
I sent a note explaining how I came to meet her sons and make their photograph. On the day I made it, they were with their Dad (or a male adult I assumed was their Dad) and I asked if I could photograph them with my 4×5 wooden view camera, and he said sure. They posed for the photo, and I left a card with him afterwards and asked him to contact me so I could get a print to him. I wanted to deliver a hand-made framed print.
But I never heard from him.
That photograph I consider one of my best of a series of photos I made with the 4×5 camera during the pandemic, when I sought to create photographs of people living life during this difficult time. I was making the photographs for an art exhibit in Boulder in March of this year, and this portrait of the boys was a featured photo in the show.
All of the photographs from that series were also gifted to the subjects of the photos–framed photographs printed in a traditional darkroom and framed in a black wood frame. Not a simple task and not inexpensive but so worth it.
All but one photo.
One photo didn’t make it to the family. One wall is empty. One memory won’t live on for generations to come. Because for them, it doesn’t exist. And the only proof they have of its existence, they requested I remove. That I take it down. They didn’t ask to get a copy or have it or share it, just to remove it.
The photo is no longer on my site. It’s gone out of respect for the woman who made the request.
It may be exhibited in future photography shows or even published in a book someday, but it’s not on my site, and it’s not gifted to the family. It’s not a photograph hanging in their home.
The part that makes it most troubling–she assumes that I was wrong to have posted it. She requested I remove it since I didn’t have written permission to use the photograph. She doesn’t understand that photographs made in public, as long as they’re not being used for commercial purposes (like in an advertisement for a product), are free to use as art, in books, in exhibits, or even in portfolio web sites thanks to the First Amendment and the freedom of expression we enjoy in the U.S.
I took it one further in this instance–something that isn’t possible when making street photographs–I received permission to make this photo. It’s a posed photograph of two boys holding their fishing poles alongside a pond. It’s wonderful. It’s in glorious black and white–a silver print. I have it already framed.
I wanted the joy I experienced making that photograph, I wanted to share that with the parents, the kids, to make them a print that they would cherish as they get older.
Instead, I get a cold letter asking me to make it go away. That they’re somehow a victim of wrongdoing when there was none, and to fix it by deleting it. Making it go away.
It felt good to compose a cordial letter conveying my joy in making the photograph, why I thought it was important to document people at that time, and explaining that I wasn’t using the photo without written permission as an oversight, but rather because it wasn’t needed. And out of respect for her wishes, I told her I would remove it. (That wasn’t my choice, but I wanted to be a good neighbor and respectful.)
None of the photographs on my site require permission to post. Again, that’s the First Amendment. It’s what makes editorial use possible, photographs in newspapers and magazines. In all my years as a photojournalist I never carried model releases, I never got signed permission, it wasn’t needed.
Without that First Amendment protection, there would be no photo of the flag-raising at Iwo Jima (Joe Rosenthal), the Sailor Kiss in Times Square (Alfred Eisenstadt) after World War II ended, none of the photos of Robert Frank, Helen Levitt, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Elliott Erwitt, William Eggleston, Stephen Shore, Mary Ellen Mark, and countless other documentary photographs.
I’ve worked my whole life as a photojournalist. I’ve photographed stories around the U.S. for publication, and documentary photography is in my blood. It’s who I am. It’s what I do–carrying a camera everyday, everywhere, that’s as automatic as wearing clothes. I don’t leave home without either. It’s not even a thought.
I consider it an honor to have my work in friends and family (and the new acquaintances I make after photographing them) home galleries. It’s wonderful to share this gift. It’s joy, it’s magical.
And it’s sad when the work is lost to thoughts of fear, to assumptions of wrongdoing. I make photographs because I can’t NOT make them. It’s my life’s work.
If we meet, please be in contact. Reach out. Send that email. Because I’ll have a special print for you. One that hopefully will last in your family for a very long time. But it wasn’t to be this time, not with this photograph.
I’ll leave you with another photo of MaryLee with her first egg. This is what I do.