Shooting Superman / by Hugh Rawson

I've thought long and hard about photographing others less fortunate than myself when I'm out on the streets with my camera; more specifically, those sleeping rough. I remember watching a frail old lady leaning into a wheelie bin in Oxford some years ago, looking for a bite to eat, and my camera twitching in my hands. Here was the wealth of the university town with the offspring of the elite and their discarded champagne bottles from the night before. And here too, someone who had no worldly possessions who had spent the night in a doorway only yards from them. 

It was a perfect juxtaposition. I didn't take the photo.

It didn't seem right.


Maybe it was because she was clearly someone who had fallen on hard times. I could only guess at the circumstances and the details of her story. Here was someone who had fallen so far that she had sunk to doing very basic things in public - sleeping, finding food... Was it right for me to photograph that and then presumably publish it if I deemed it a good enough capture? An enticing composition with a good tonal range.

Or maybe it was because I was very aware that the piece of kit in my hand could have paid for a night or three in a hotel for this unfortunate person. And there are many more valuable cameras available that would pay for many more nights than the one I was wielding. 

I'm glad I didn't take the photograph - though her image stays with me. However, I have undergone something of a rethink. Greater photographers than I will ever be have captured now famous images of Victorian or third world street children, of beggars and drifters in every corner of the globe. Time lends them a completely different aspect. Their faces stare back at us from the past with a very livid look in their eyes that paintings could never mimic. Perhaps we lookand pride  ourselves that society has moved on from these shoeless ghosts. It hasn't. They will, perhaps, always be with us.

Surely, to walk by and not photograph is to deny their existence. We may not like the fact that we live in a society that allows people to live this way but surely that doesn't mean they should be ignored or photoshopped out of history - if there's even an image to edit in the first place. 

When I passed a man sleeping rough, off Charing Cross Road in London in August, he was dressed as Superman. His belongings were beside him and he clearly chose to wear the superhero outfit to draw attention to himself. I hope it brought him a few extra donations. Knowing he was dressing for his audience somehow legitimised my taking his picture. And I clicked as I passed by.

His image is a reminder to me of those less fortunate. Perhaps it will speak out over time as similar images have done for the past one hundred years.