Pondering The Ethics of Street Photography
As much as I love shooting street photography, I often find myself wondering about the ethics of it. I generally shoot candid street photography, as I believe that this is a more representative form of the art, in my opinion. While there’s nothing wrong with taking photos of people in public, at least according to the law, I do sometimes question if it’s right or not.
I go back and forward on this a lot. On the one hand, I do believe that it’s a legitimate art form, and I also think that it’s important to keep a document of the average person and life in the times that we live in. Candid street photography isn’t staged or manipulated, and it does capture the essence of the life of a city or town. But sometimes I do feel a little bit guilty doing it like you’re doing something wrong.
So how do I deal with this?
I think there are two distinctly different approaches to street photography, and the proponents of each philosophy often vehemently defend one method over the other. On the one hand, there is the idea that “real” street photography involves going up to a subject and engaging with them, talking to them and then asking to take their photo. The other style is a more candid and stealthy approach, arguing that you should never approach your subject to remain objective.
Personally, I favour the latter approach. For me, it’s kind of like the Heisenberg principle. If you observe too closely, you risk altering the subject. Or in the case of street photography, if you engage with the subject, you change the scene, and you are then part of it. I think the other form is more "street portraiture" rather than street photography.
Of course, I’m also pretty shy about talking to people, so there’s that too. My mother told me many times not to talk to strangers when I was a child, and it seems to have stuck!
I try to be as considerate as possible when out taking street photos. I’ve seen some street photographers shove their cameras in peoples faces in the name of “getting close”, but this to me is an invasion of personal space, and not particularly artistic or ethical.
I also like to capture people in their environment. I try to treat it as a “scene” rather than just purely photographing people. This may come across as a bit esoteric, but I try to think of it, as not necessarily taking the photo of a person as they go about their business, but rather as a snapshot of a scene, which just happens to contain a person. The picture will be about both, rather than one or the other. I’m not sure that this is a particularly widely held philosophy when it comes to street photography, but it’s how I try to view it. That doesn’t always come across in my shots mind you, but that’s at least how I try to approach it.
Then again, sometimes the real and only reason I take a photo is that I think it looks good. There’s no deep meaning or in-depth metaphorical subtext to the image. I saw something that I thought looked nice, so I pressed the shutter.
I wrote a piece a while ago about Street Photography, and how I almost don’t see myself as a street photographer. I also talked about how many of the so-called “rules” are kind of nonsense.
I do think there is one rule that every street photographer should abide by though: don’t be an ass. There’s a whole segment of so-called street photographers out there, some of them quite famous (well, internet famous) who are so caught up in their “rights” as a photographer that they don’t give a damn about the person they are photographing. As I’ve already said, shoving a camera in some unsuspecting person’s face isn’t an artistic photo, it’s you being an ass. There are masses of photos online that consists of people looking startled, or gesturing to the photographer to go away, or generally looking uncomfortable.
If your subject doesn’t want their photo taken, don’t take it. If you’re making someone uncomfortable, stop. It’s not rocket science. As I said, this doesn’t make you a better artist, it makes you a twit.
Here’s another thing to consider: just because you take a photo, doesn’t mean you have to use it. If something seems too personal, or too much like an invasion of privacy, I won’t use it. I was recently shooting for an upcoming episode of my “street photo diary” series, and I got a really great shot. It was perfectly composed, and there was a great expression on the faces of the two people in the photo. But I’m not going to use it, because I felt it would be an invasion of their privacy. They were in an open window/door area of a restaurant which was entirely open to the street. In this case, I don’t think there’s any ambiguity that this would be unethical to use this image, but I know there are photographers who would do so without any qualms.
Regarding the law, as far as I’m aware, the law in Ireland states that it’s perfectly fine to take photos of people in public places so long as they don’t have a reasonable expectation of privacy. I believe that the situation I just described was one of those occasions where they would have had a reasonable expectation.
Anyway, it’s not something that keeps me up at night, but it is something that I think about now and again. I know people talk about this topic a lot online, and sometimes it can be quite a heated discussion, but I do think it’s an interesting question, and I suspect that the acceptance of street photography is continually evolving. Peoples views of street photography vary widely, and some are more philosphical than others about this, so I’m curious to hear your opinions.
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