Tatsuo Suzuki and Fujifilm: The Ethics of Street Photography & More | Caylan Hallows

Fujifilm recently released a series of videos and editorials on some of their ambassadors for their ‘Iconic Camera’ series. One of their photographers, Tatsuo Suzuki, managed to go from ambassador to ex-ambassador startlingly quick. Suzuki’s video highlighted aspects of his photography style that many in the photography community found uncomfortable - or worse.

Graphic by Caylan Hallows

The backlash against Suzuki led to the removal of the video, and of the photographer as an ambassador. Many have supported Fujifilm’s decision, with some commenters highlighting what they believe to be a hyper-masculine and archaic attitude to taking photographs of the public. Others have come to Suzuki’s defence, stating that his approach is not a breach of any laws, and that Suzuki’s results outweigh the potential discomfort of his subjects. In short, no one seems particularly happy - including Suzuki himself, who has felt the need to take a step back from his work.

Tatsuo Suzuki, from Tokyo Street 2009-2018

The incident raises an interesting debate around the ethics of street photography, and, indeed, what this might mean for art in general, as we work within a digital age where censoring and criticism is rife and immediately accessible to all. There have been a lot of opinion pieces on this subject, varying heavily in their outlook. I have proposed a few key questions to open up the debate:

Does effective art outweigh its potential ethical issues?

A point that has regularly been brought up is that Suzuki’s results do (or don’t) outweigh his abrasive technique. Suzuki is certainly an accomplished photographer, and his results have been praised by swathes of street photography fans, particularly on platforms such as Flickr and Instagram. Suzuki himself claims that he wants to archive Tokyo and its ever-changing nature, and particularly focuses on the wealth divide of the mega-city. His photographs, whilst jarring for some, embody this motive. They aren’t the work of someone trying to cause a negative reaction, but, rather, a provocative one. It could be argued that if art aims to create a positive change, or highlight an issue, then some level of discomfort in the process should be allowed. In fact, the art may even have to be abrasive and controversial for it to be considered effective. Perhaps a useful example of this is the work of Ai Wei Wei, whose infamous series ‘Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn’ provoked huge controversy through his destruction of a culturally important artefact. However, the work intended to highlight the corruption of Mao’s regime, who aimed to erase the past. It could certainly be argued that for this point to be effectively illustrated, Ai Wei Wei had to do something this shocking. Abrasive systems and politics might need to be met with abrasive art.

Tatsuo Suzuki, from Tokyo Street 2009-2018

What criticism is warranted? And Why?

Criticism isn’t just an integral part of art, it’s an integral part of life. Without criticism, nothing changes or develops and the right to criticise has to be defended. However, technological modern living awards us a myriad of different ways to criticise: social media, comments sections, e-petitions etc. With that newly acquired accessibility, comes the often problematic anonymity and flippancy that exists in many corners of the internet. Criticism of Suzuki’s technique may lead to new debates surrounding street photography and privacy in general, which can only be a productive thing in the long term. However, calling Suzuki a “creep”, “vile” and “pathetic” feels unhelpful at the very least, and has the potential to bring on a ‘cancel culture’ around things which may be uncomfortable to mainstream audiences. People should be open to criticising Suzuki’s style, but criticising Suzuki as a human being seems irrelevant and has the potential to sully the actual debate.

What about companies and their relationship to controversial artists?

It’s easy to forget that none of this would have happened without Fujifilm. For better or worse, Fujifilm created a video about Suzuki and removed the very same video as soon as there was criticism. The decision to remove the video was as controversial as it was to post it in the first place. Many argued that Fujifilm should have stuck by Suzuki; after all, it seems hard to believe that they weren’t aware of his style beforehand. However, Fujifilm naturally wants to appeal to the mass market. How can they achieve this by supporting a controversial photographer?

Companies should be thinking hard about their decision to endorse artists. A cynical reader may take the view that they included Suzuki due to his vast social media following, ignoring any other factors in the hope that his cult following would become Fujifilm customers. When this didn’t go to plan, they moved to a state of damage control. Interestingly, Fujifilm have not commented on the issue and have kept quiet about the whole affair - as if it never happened. Whether you think that Fujifilm should have dropped him or not, it certainly feels disheartening to see a brand go against their ambassador so quickly.

Tatsuo Suzuki, from Tokyo Street 2009-2018

Does this teach us anything?

Whether Suzuki is right or wrong, I think it is fair to say that his style of shooting is certainly less accepted now than it would in the height of classic street photography. This being said, I think it’s important to have that debate in a civil and aware way. It seems strange that Fujifilm made no comment, and Suzuki seemingly had no say either. For art communities to thrive and progress, it’s important that all actors are included in the debate. I believe it would have been important to see Suzuki have the chance to weigh in on a debate surrounding his own work, and similarly important to see Fujifilm explain their position. In an instant media world, it feels increasingly like ethical creative debates are being ruled by comment sections. I believe that debates around potentially problematic art are crucial, but they must be had in a way that is self-aware and not motivated by ‘cancel culture’. Debates should make creative communities stronger, and increase their accessibility.