Privacy, photography, and Paris

It is embarrassing to be so naive about the city I love best in the entire world (or warlord, as one of my kids used to say). In what have become annual visits, I shoot hundreds of photographs of the monuments, details, and faces of Paris. I think I have been stopped exactly once, and that was when one of the bouquinistes along the Seine was afraid I would take the image of his posters home and somehow replicate it for my own profit. Yet a few months ago I read in the New York Times that France has a  draconian privacy law, Article 9 of the civil code, that has — according to that reporter — pretty much shut down street photography in Paris, where it thrived for decades.

I have to admit that like a number of other photographers commenting on this weird cultural turn of events, I am more concerned with figuring out how to carry on than abashed by the scenes I have captured despite Parisians’ reported hostility to my taking home their images.

ImageLast September I innocently wandered the streets with my DSLR and a zoom lens, stealing people’s portraits, if not their souls. I was shameless because I hadn’t yet read that I should be more reticent, not to say sneaky. This September I will return, this time with a compact camera.To be sure, the size reduction has more to do with not wanting to pack or carry a whole kit than it does with taking surreptitious photos. BUT the beauty of the compact is that the shutter is electronic and can be silenced.

ImageI am drawn over and over to the core of Paris, half a kilometer on either side of the Seine, from Ile St-Louis to the Eiffel Tower. These touristed places are easy to photograph without being conspicuous. It seems the only people who notice me are the ring-scam people. (More on that somewhere else. Maddening.)  Everyone’s got a camera; everyone’s snapping indiscriminately, hoping like me to box the magic of Paris to sustain us through another non-Parisian year. Thus many of my shots are probably unobserved.


When Robert Doisneau shot Parisians, he captured them mostly with a Leica: small, quiet, oh so classy (but that’s a photographer’s take — who else cares?). Here’s a shot from 1957:

ImageIn the United States, we are anxious about strangers photographing our children. A recent story details the ability of predators to track down any individual using software that reads GPS coordinates from online snaps. Of course this kind of fear is not new. In the 1950s, when Doisneau was taking these pictures in France,  Americans were becoming obsessed with strangers in trenchcoats preying on our children. Here is another Doisneau kid capture:

Here is the man himself — what a whimsical, joyous shot. (Photograph probably by Peter Hamilton.)


Here is a photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt, who froze 1963 Paris for us.

ImageThis is borrowed, by the way, from an extraordinary LIFE magazine online portfolio. The Doisneau photos are from his atelier website, where you can find a wealth of his street photography.

When you poke around the web just a bit, it becomes obvious that, like me, many photographers have not gotten the cameras-off message about Paris. Just one of the photographers working today has created some gems VERY close to his subjects. Here’s one from Yanidel called “The Planet of Armless Women.”


The planet of armless women. Yanidel, 2011.

I get to have the last word. Usually it is easier to photograph your subject from the back or some other oblique angle — which means that usually those photos are not that exciting. Sometimes, though, they are endearing. Here’s one of mine that I still like a lot:

8119479214_dee00e8b20_o (2)And here’s a child portrait I didn’t have to steal:

8123527178_5bea7d9368_oShe said “Bonjour!” and I asked her mother if I could take her picture. Cute kid doesn’t begin to cover it.

2 thoughts on “Privacy, photography, and Paris

  1. Pingback: Memory, intimacy, and Paris photographs | The historian's lens

  2. Pingback: Doisneau at Bercy | The historian's lens

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