To shoot, or not to shoot?

A major hurdle most aspiring street photographers have to overcome is the fear of pointing a camera at strangers. There are many reasons to think twice about photographing strangers on the street. Some relate to hypothetical ‘what ifs’ regarding the range of possible negative reactions. These are real but, in my experience, very infrequent.

However, it’s another set of reasons I want to reflect on this post. These relate to two ethical questions inherent in the practice of street photography.

Is street photography an invasion of privacy?

That street photography can be voyeuristic and intrusive is undeniable. Whether, in practice, the photographer strays into these inappropriate areas depends on many factors. Cultural context and the motivations of the photographer are important among them.

Attitudes towards the practice of street photography, among the public and regulatory authorities, vary enormously by country.  Privacy concerns relate to both persons and property. The latter is exacerbated by the increasing privatisation of public spaces in many capitalist countries (think shopping malls and corporate offices).

Intolerance for street photography is notoriously high among the citizens of Marrakech. Weary of being snapped by legions of impolite tourists, they routinely object loudly and assertively. Even experienced Magnum photographers can be phased by the experience (see Marrakech: the city that distrusts photographers). I’ve endured spitting, stoning and loud cursing there – and I consider myself mild mannered and polite. (I’m guessing Bruce Gilden’s continued existence suggests he has never photographed there).

Marrakech, Morocco 2014

Many countries have tightened their laws regarding rights to privacy of their citizens in recent years. France is often cited as a prime example. However, it is the nearby principality of Monaco that affords its residents the greatest levels of privacy. Professional photographer Rebecca Marshall has written about the intricate and protracted challenge of gaining the multiple permits required for even routine assignments there (see Monaco: license to shoot).

While in Monaco earlier this year, I spent time photographing a particularly promising location. The lighting was interesting but, I had to wait for a passer-by to walk into the exact spot to make the composition work. It was only afterwards I realised the obliging gent was a very well-known British retail businessman with good reasons not to be seen in that place at that time. I didn’t have permits to photograph and so continue to sit on those images.

Monaco, 2016

However, these are extreme examples. I believe more restrictive regulatory environments reflect a desire by the rich and famous to deflect the attention of an intrusive media. Ordinary citizens have neither the resources or, more importantly, the inclination to resort to litigation in response to street photographers.

In my experience, most people don’t view the attentions of a street photographer as intrusive if the photographer acts confidently and transparently. Even in Western European countries where mild curiosity or occasional suspicion is more likely, a smile and brief explanation that we’re practicing a form of social documentary photography known as ‘street photography’ usually elicits a positive – or bemused – response. A compliment or two to explain why you chose to feature this particularly cool looking individual never hurts.

Varanasi, India 2016

This approach involves a loss of the candidness much prized by a minority of hard-line street photographers. So what! Many seminal images in the canon of street photography are characterised by their deliberate lack of candidness. Think of William Klein’s Gun 1: New York City of 1954 (see it here) or Diane Arbus’s 1962 image ‘Child with a toy hand grenade’ (see it here) by way of examples.

For me, candidness is neither a necessary, or sufficient, condition for a ‘street’ photograph.

When is street photography exploitation?

A different set of issues stems from the power differentials that sometimes exist between the photographer and the people we wish to photograph.  Where the photographer is in an obvious position of greater wealth, age, physicality, authority, etc. another person may acquiesce to being photographed when they might really prefer to refuse.

Hoi An, Vietnam 2012

Any responsible photographer is naturally wary of such exploitive situations. Just because we can easily photograph the poor, homeless, children, senior citizens, or disabled people on the street doesn’t mean we’re at liberty to go ahead. It’s worth remembering our own civil rights depend on a reciprocal responsibility to respect those rights for others.

I must admit to viewing this issue of potential exploitation with ambivalence. To my mind, street photography has an important ‘mass observation’ documentary role capturing the times in which we photographers live.

New Delhi, India 2016

Consequently, I do not, by way of example, subscribe to the view that candid photographs of homeless people are off limits as many photographer’s assert.  I take the view that all aspects of my social and physical environment are legitimate subjects as aspects of my life experience. That is to say, I believe it is legitimate to express my experiences on the street through my photography.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not in favour of a crass carte blanche approach to street photography. It is not OK in my book to photograph people in distress, continue to take photographs if someone appears uncomfortable or says stop, to deliberately portray someone as unattractive, or in a compromising situation.

However, I believe it is legitimate to photograph the homeless, elderly, disabled people, or whoever, if the motive is to make a statement about a specific societal issue affecting them (and charactering the times in which I am living). Where there is the potential to compromise people in the image it is possible to frame the image so as not to reveal their identity as in the examples of ageing below illustrate.

Hue, Vietnam 2012

Marrakech, 2014

Marrakech, Morocco 2014

There is another caveat in using this documentary justification. The resulting images should avoid the “documentary paradox” of over aestheticising the subject (through dramatic lighting, compositional devices or post-processing) rather than prioritising the content of the image. The documentary justification falters if the image draws attention to the artfulness of the image maker rather than the social significance of the subject.

There are situations where street photography involves a third party who is not present in the photograph. The freedom to photograph children, for example, should depend on the consent of parents or guardians. But, even in the case of children, context matters and there are times when consent is implied rather than formally granted.

For example, the image below was taken in the UK without formally seeking parental consent. The parents of the children were sat close by watching their kids have fun and I was in plain sight of them about 10 meters away.  I’m absolutely sure they could see there was nothing remotely creepy or voyeuristic in what I was doing. Like them I was just delighted to see the little ones so obviously enjoying themselves and recording that emotion in photographs.

Liverpool, England 2015

Conclusion

There is a tendency, in some quarters, to advance rigid rules as to what constitutes ‘street’ photography and to advocate, equally restrictive, codes of behaviour for street photographers. Nobody can dispute that street photography is replete with ethical dilemmas. That said, like all ethical dilemmas, these are often ill defined, nuanced and context specific in their particulars.

On occasion, formal rules may help guide the photographer’s decision to lift the camera and click, or walk on by. As often as not there will be a grey area between those rules and reality where an exercise in judgement is required.

Here one’s own motives for wanting to make the photograph come into play. The photographer must quickly ask and answer the question: Why am I making this photograph?

If there is a plausible answer defensible by reference to documentary intentions that doesn’t gratuitously compromise any person included in the photograph, then go ahead and record the scene. It is a legitimate subject for street photography and you are doing a potentially valuable thing in recording that social event for posterity.

On the other hand, if your answer is that the person looks uncontrollably drunk, is judged ugly, weird, or otherwise perceived negatively due to their ‘difference’ from you then put down the camera and walk away from photography. You will never produce work of any value and will do nothing but harm to ‘street’ photography’s reputation.

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20 thoughts on “To shoot, or not to shoot?

  1. I know that feeling too well. Usually I don’t take a photo because I feel that I wouldn’t want one taken off me either by some random stranger. On the rare occasions if I feel they might say yes, I’ll ask in advance but of course it spoils the moment…
    Vanessa

    • Hi Vanessa, I understand what you mean. I hate having my photo taken. Most of the time I find others people are flattered to be asked though. The intention is always to make people look good and usually they are pleased with the shot when I show them the lcd. Often the asking (and response) is no more than a gesture towards the camera and a nod or shake of their head. Regards, John

  2. Interesting topic, John. I, like Vanessa in the comment above, am a bit reluctant to take photos of people unless they’re far off, or confused in a crowd. I’d love to be able to do portraits of people on the street, but in the rare occasions I gave it a go my output turned bland and uninspiring.

    I agree about Marrakech; it was a bit better in the Mellah, but I had the feeling of being used as a movable ATM. Speaking French helped, and I was trying to take pictures without people, which led to some bemusing discussions!

    Fabrizio

    • Ciao Fabrizio, Marrakech was definitely the biggest challenge. I learned a lot from it though. There are definitely skills that help photographers manage street encounters positively. Best, John

  3. Hi Cornelia, it was comment about photography in India that lead me to write this piece. I didn’t directly address the issue of photographing poverty but I am very conscious of the issue. Best, John

  4. Love reading your thoughts on this subject. I agree with your comment above — a nod of the head or gesture toward the camera can make all the difference. I just returned from Mumbai where asking/gesturing before shooting facilitated mutual interest between me and the people I was photographing. The resulting shots weren’t candid, but the people were proud to be photographed and so pleased with seeing/sharing the results. This coaxed me out from behind the lens and created some great unexpected memories beyond it.

  5. Greetings from India.Nice article.Interesting too regarding aspects of street photography. Fortunately people of India as on today are more friendly and permit you to take photos Thank you.

  6. Wow great perspective on shooting street photography in other cultures. I feel like since many people shoot in capitalist societies we are oblivious to the experience of shooting in other cultures. You make great points about what is acceptable and unacceptable to shoot while in the streets.

    • Hi Gary, thanks for the positive comment. I just treat all people with respect on the street and, like you say on your blog, talk to people on the street. Those new street shots with the flash on the X100T are really cool. What flash unit you using? Regards, John

    • Hi Rosalina, thanks for your comment. I’m glad you enjoyed it. I’m doing a lot of travelling this year in search of new images. Blogging when I get chance. Regards, John.

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