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Response to BuzzFeed Comments

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posted by Tommy Ga-Ken Wan 溫嘉勤 alias TGKW on Wednesday 5th of November 2014 01:50:25 PM The places where I usually share my photographs - Flickr or 500px - are photo sharing communities where comment and discussion, when they do happen, tend to centre around purely photographic elements such as light, colour and cameras. And so it's been pleasing to read some of the more widely contextualised thoughts and criticisms of my work and the way it has been presented by BuzzFeed, which yesterday published a series of my photographs. Although I know that it's one of the world's top 100 websites by traffic, it didn't really occur to me that the series would be seen by so many people (almost 300,000 in the twelve hours from being posted to the time of writing). Or, if it did, I didn't think through fully the consequences of exposure of that kind. Given that I know what the comments section of the internet can be like, it's refreshing that discussion has largely been civil, mature and occasionally insightful. Stephen Fry once said - as I'm sure others before him have - that if you believe good reviews of your work, then you must also believe the bad ones. I'm not sure that I fully agree, but I've enjoyed reading both the compliments and the criticisms for more than just narcissistic or masochistic indulgence: it forces me to engage with my work in ways I might not have previously. Occasionally my consciousness is raised to some moral or ethical implications I hadn't considered; occasionally I'm forced to admit that it simply isn't very good. Discussion of the series has been along three main lines: veracity; appropriateness of the title; diversity. I'd like to - and am glad I'm able to - deal with the first two very quickly, because it's the third one that has given me most pause. 1. Veracity. The claim that "his subjects are unaware and unposed" is one that I made and which BuzzFeed have quoted. To the person who responded to this with the snide "RIIIIIGGGGGGHHHHHT!" I can only say: believe what you want, but it's true in 24 of the 25 images. The exception is of the couple standing before St Paul's Cathedral. I had been commissioned to capture the projection of words onto the dome and, as I was setting up that evening, I saw a couple hugging in front of it. By the time was ready to shoot, they had finished and were walking away, but I approached them and asked them if they would re-stage the moment I had just missed. That is the only time. In the other 24 cases, the subjects might have been aware of my presence because of the confined or empty space in which the image was taken, but none were ever asked to pose, and none ever acknowledged - even implicitly or indirectly - that they were being photographed. 2. Appropriateness of the Title ("25 Pictures That Prove Love Is Real"). As many journalists and photographers know, titles, headings, headlines and subheadlines are often the remit of editors and not the producers or creators of the work contained within. So, while it has been interesting to read about whether or not the photographs depict people who are genuinely in love (whatever that means) or merely the preludes to one night stands, I make no claim either way. Many of these photographs are of strangers, of people whose stories I don't know but for one moment I photographed because I saw something I thought beautiful or real (even if just real lust or real drunken passion). I engaged with their story at that moment, and if by looking at these photographs others do the same, then I'm pleased. 3. Diversity. This criticism is the one that warrants the most consideration on my part because it's true: this series of photographs lacks diversity. "Seeing some girls that weren't only size 5 and under would be nice"; "...all young, thin, white and conventionally attractive"; "Whiter than a damn Klan rally."; "All around the globe? Really?" These are all fair statements ("All around the globe" are the words of an editor, but it's true that a few countries are pictured here.) My explanation for the lack of diversity is that, while they are not representative of the world, or of love, they are representative of my experience. I should be even more specific: they are not representative of my experience as a human being, but they are representative of my experience as a sometime photographer of strangers. These photographs depict scenes and situations that I did not seek out, but that I happened to see. And while I see minority ethnic and elderly couples together, the occasions on which that coincided with a time when my camera was at the ready and when the photograph I took was considered by me to be good enough to be included in this series appears to be very small. In this series, there is one Chinese woman, admittedly thin and conventionally attractive ( although I suspect older than most of the subjects here) and one Chinese boy, again conventionally attractive. There are also Greek and Italian people depicted here, although less obviously, and a couple of others who I don't think are white but I'm not sure. Then there is the fact that, while I do see older couples and minority ethnic couples, I see them a lot less. The reason for this is that the majority of these photographs were taken while I was in my early to mid 20s, and the majority of them were taken in Scotland, where I live. I spent much of my early mid 20s in bars and nightclubs (still do, I suppose...) and the minority ethnic population of Scotland is a mere 4%. I sit typing this in a fairly busy cafe on a fairly busy street. I look around me, inside the cafe and out, and I count 35 people: 34 are white, 1 is East Asian. In the reflection of my laptop screen, I add one more person to the count: a half-Chinese man. Intimacy of the kind depicted here - call it love, call it drunken lust, whatever - is far more often seen in bars and nightclubs than on the street, and those who frequent bars and nightclubs tend to be young. Moreover, young people are more comfortable being photographed candidly: the majority of "please remove this photograph" requests I receive are from older people. This is also the case - or I've worried that it's the case - not ethnically but culturally in many of the places I've visited where the majority population is non-white. For example, in my travels to Morocco, Thailand, India or Pakistan, I would be less willing (whether through cultural sensitivity or cultural ignorance) to point my camera at strangers being intimate. I hope the reasons I've given explain why this series lacks diversity, and writing them has left me with a question for myself: do I have a RESPONSIBILITY to reflect the diversity of the world/ country/city when documenting it? I suspect the answer, as usual, is "it depends". This compilation of images was drawn from my archive: I did not set out to document "lovers from around the globe", which if I had then I believe I would have had a responsibility to reflect the different kinds of people who love (which is every kind of people). But perhaps in compiling the series, it's something I should have borne in mind. This series of images makes no claims, but I realise now that perhaps it should carry a disclaimer of sorts: these images were taken, by happenstance rather than by design, by a young man who is largely surrounded in his existence by young, middle-class white people. Thanks for making me think about this. Glasgow, 2014. About Me | My Best Work | FAQ | Twitter | Facebook | Tumblr

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