Access and Standing

There are many portals to engagement in photography, but two factors largely determine one’s chance of success. They are Access and Standing.  “Access” is the opportunity to share time and space with one’s subject. If we can’t get near the person or pass through the gate, we can’t photograph what’s inside the inner sanctum. “Standing” is our qualification to interact with our subject. We will remain an outsider unless we speak their language or have some shared connection. Without Standing, our photographs will likely be those of a tourist, not those of an artist.

Graffiti writers are notoriously secretive about themselves, even as they strive to make their work known to the public. Unwritten rules govern their society—from the locations they allow themselves to paint to their status in a population of peers.

It took years for a particular group of graffiti writers to accept my presence. It took even longer for them to invite me on a nocturnal outing. First, I had to earn their trust. Then I needed to learn their language, cultural history, and social protocol.

Access was my first hurdle in learning the writers’ secrets. Standing was my second. My price for my admission was that I suspend judgment. I needed to appreciate them for who they were and on their terms. Only then could I make meaningful photographs.