Street Photography Ethics

Street photography has one key differentiator from other photography that makes it somewhat controversial. A street photographer is photographing strangers, as an event or wedding or documentary photographer might, but without being paid to do so. There is no client, no newspaper commissioning the images. Whether or not the street photographer has a clear purpose, artistic or otherwise, is also not likely to be clear to an observer or the subject of one of the images. The role of a wedding photographer or a concert photographer is largely understood, people know what they’re doing and why, and probably assume (rightly or wrongly) that they have a certain level of competence and integrity. Street photography, not so much.

How socially and legally acceptable street photography is depends significantly on the country and sometimes region. Even a country like France with a rich history of street photography by legendary photographers such as Henri Cartier-Bresson and debatably the originator of street photography, Eugene Atget, has relatively strict regulations to protect ‘the individuals rights over their own image’. Aside from the legal considerations though, there are still many ethical and moral considerations.

Some styles of street photography are naturally less prone to ethical concerns. Abstracts and uninhabited street scenes are unlikely to cause a problem (although even some buildings, such as the lighting on the Eiffel Tower, have copyright protection). Large crowds or images where the individuals aren’t identifiable should be fine too.

Beyond that though there are some questions to be asked. Such as:

Should you photograph someone who doesn’t know they’re being photographed?
Should you photograph someone that doesn’t want to be photographed?
Should you photograph someone in a potentially embarrassing or demeaning situation?
Should you photograph the homeless?
Should you photograph a child without the permission of a parent?

One common argument is that the street photographer is a documentarian. That without street photography we’d have no record of life as it is today.

It’s true that some photographers are documentarians. Eugene Atget was primarily concerned with documenting his beloved city of Paris. Garry Winogrand captured a huge quantity of images of the streets of New York and LA. But most street photographers don't exercise the discipline of a documentarian, and are more concenred with the beauty or humor or interest of a moment than the wider context and the contribution of an image to the recorded history of a place or community.

I'd love to give some clear, straight answers to the questions I listed above but I don't think they exist. I sometimes photograph the homeless, although usually after at least a conversation. I often photograph people before they know I’m doing it. Sometimes I’m comfortable doing that, sometimes it seems better to ask for permission first, although that obviously means that the candid moment is lost.

Every situation is different but personally I try to photograph not just with respect for the people I’m photographing, but with care for them. I welcome the interactions, the smiles, the opportunity to share a moment or show an image to someone. If someone wants me to delete a photo, I’ll delete it (assuming it’s digital), although that situation hasn’t happened to me yet.

It’s a challenging subject because personally, and I guess hypocritically, I’m suspicious of other photographers. If they look like a street photographer then I’m always interested to watch for a while, their approach and technique. But I still I can’t help wondering if I’m in any of the images, especially if I’m with my daughter and especially if the photographer is using a long lens.

There aren’t easy answers. I’m glad there are photographers that take images that I wouldn’t. I’m glad that even images like Bruce Gilden’s exist, although I’ve no idea how many of his subjects would agree. He’s pushed boundaries, asked new questions and extended the conversation over what street photography can be.

There aren’t easy answers but I still think it’s important that we ask these questions about our work and our approach. Sometimes it isn’t about what and when we photograph, but how we go about it, our attitude. We might often have the right to photograph freely in the streets according to the law, but that doesn’t mean we always should.

Headshot, portrait, street and documentary photographer in NYC and Jersey City

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