The Ethics of Street Photography

What is Street Photography?

Downtown Crossing

Street photography has become a hobby of mine over the past few years, and increasingly so over this past summer. I’ll define and use street photography here in the broadest possible sense of its definition. It’s candid pictures taken in public of real life. The moment one changes their action and pose due to the acknowledgment of the camera it no longer belongs in the street photographer category. It doesn’t have to happen on the street of course, and doesn’t necessarily need to be of complete strangers. Photos in parks, beaches and concerts could be considered street photography. A photo of my cousin at her wedding running down a field and laughing at her brother holding a watermelon could also be considered street photography.

The law is generally on the side of the street photographer. As long as the subject is in public, and doesn’t have the expectation of privacy, it is legal to take their photo. Common sense needs to come into play as well of course. You can’t disrupt law enforcement or get in people’s way, and for lack of better terms, do something pervy. If it was illegal the paparazzi couldn’t exist the way they do today. However, there’s a big difference between the paparazzi and the modern street photographer. The paparazzi seek to create a story by any means necessarily regardless of the ethics behind it. A good street photographer captures an existing story and leaves it untouched. Here are some examples from my “work” as a street photographer:

Nobody knows...
Nobody knows…

Pre-March Stretch
Pre-March Stretch
Looka the Sunset
Looka the Sunset
Hidden Focus
Hidden Focus
Red Rocks Creator
Red Rocks Creator
Rebels with a cause
Rebels with a cause

My Irish Bosom Buddy

Eyre Square Characters
Interesting Eyre Square Candidates

In the summer of 2010 I vacationed in Ireland with my family. We were walking the character-filled streets of Galway and I was snapping away. I was one of many thousands capturing Eyre Square festivities, Shop Street passer-byes and the pipes of the Galway Cathedral. A women with a stroller approached me from behind with a concerned look on her face. At first I thought she wanted money, but she was put together a bit too nicely for that. Her concern was that she heard my camera click away and noticed that her blouse had lost a few buttons. “Were you taking pictures of me?” she probably said, covering her cleavage. “No”, I responded. She was oddly relieved and walked away. We all had a brief, uncomfortable chuckle.

I have little doubt that she heard my camera snap, but I wasn’t focusing on her in any way. I was actually disappointed that I didn’t get a photo of her as I went through the photos later that night. Looking back at it was a very bold, and possibly self-centered move to chase me down. If I had said “yes”, what would she have done? Plague my potato harvest? Spit in my Guinness? While my word was good enough to prove me not-guilty, it did teach me an important lesson. Regardless of the law, people do not always want their photo taken by strangers for sport and I have to respect that.

Angry Wedding Photographers

Wedding Photography Crash
Wedding Photography Crash

After a visit to Occupy Boston to photo the local band “Cowgill” I took the long way back to the train station. It was around 3PM and obviously a prime time for wedding photography as I passed by 4 separate weddings on my walk. These were in public parks, and along my walk anyways, so I snapped some photos with my 70-300mm zoom lens. There were many other spectators with cameras, but I may have been the only one with an intimidating zoom lens. After a few minutes I was noticed by the wedding party and moved along. We exchanged smiles and I knew my fun was over. I didn’t want to be trouble or get in the way of the professional shots. At no time did the professional photographer make eye-contact with me, though I knew he was aware of me and the other spectators.

I was curious about how wedding photographers felt about random people taking photos of their paying subjects so I asked a popular wedding photographer group on Flickr. These are some quotes I received in the responses:

“For legal liability reasons I cannot state how I would *like* to treat people who mess up my wedding shoots. They do, however, use some of the *treatments* at Guantanamo Bay. :-)”

“Why would you want to take pictures of people getting married who you don’t know and have no connection with?” “i have to agree with “~anuppityflickruseriwontmention~”, i dont get the “why””

“On rare instances you have to take steps to eliminate the distraction, whatever it is. A large gun is effective … so’s a pit bull.”

This was my response to the group:

So my punishment so far is water-boarding, large guns and pit bull attacks. Seems a bit harsh. There’s a common question of “why” anyone would want to do this. Why would a amateur photographer be intrigued by a group of smiling 20-somethings in formal wear? I think the better question is why not? I’m a huge fan of street photography and capturing a candid moment. I don’t want a shot of the bride and groom smiling at me. I want a pic of the bride laughing and sneezing, whispering or coughing. Something real. I imagine every wedding photographer wants these “street” and candid photos from their shoot as well. The simple answer to the “why’ is that I enjoy photography. There is nothing in it for me other than the love of snapping that photo. I wonder if professional wedding photographers have lost that love. I also love playing the piano. What do I have to gain from it other than enjoyment? Absolutely nothing. I am as respectful as possible. The moment someone made eye contact with me I was gone. I was in the shadows hurting no one. There were groups with POS cameras when I got there and remained when I left. My image of wedding photographers before this post was that they were a bit snobby and unapproachable. That was an image I got as a frequent wedding guest throughout my twenties. It’s almost a confirmation to that image to know that they all want me dead.

I’ve highlighted the negative comments here but there were many people that came to my defense and aggressively attacked those unrealistic photographers who believed that they were given God’s trigger-finger exclusively . I also realize I asked the question in enemy territory. It’s a bit like going through Fenway Park and asking for opinions on the NY Yankees and expecting impartial responses. The aggression was against all third-party photographers getting in the way of their shot and not directly pointed at me personally. I can only imagine that many street photographers could be far less polite and more aggressive than I was. The lesson here is that the welcome of a street photographer can wear off very quickly and it’s best to walk away. By definition, the moment after you have been noticed it is no longer street photography. As an important aside, in my opinion the first moment of eye-contact is very real and should be considered street photography.

My Conclusions

I will continue to follow the golden rule, though how I want to be treated may be a special case. After going to a fair or music festival I often go through public photos in case I was a “victim” of street photography, or even just part of a photo as a random participant.

In short, one needs to be discreet and polite. Don’t interfere with what’s going on and learn to just walk away from potential and escalating danger. In the end, my goal is to create a photo and photo series that correctly, and positively, portrays a “street” situation. While it’s unlikely that any of my subjects would accidentally see one of my photos, I would expect them to be surprised and delighted by the result. If I’m proud of the photo I’ve taken then it’s a public compliment. In a time where tens of thousands of photos are uploaded to Facebook and Flickr everyday an anonymous street photo should not be considered offensive or intrusive. If offended, leaving the house in general should be given a second thought.

But if they wanted to see the photos later what’s a flashy way to entice them to visit one of my photo collections? My alliteration-filled idea follows.

A Phunny and Potentially Profitable Preemptive Photo Prototype?

I came up with a trick that I plan to use when confronted with a subject that begins to question what I’m doing, or shows some interest; hand them a business card. In searching the ‘net afterward I see I’m not the first to think of it however. There have been many cases where this could have been helpful. If I’m at a small concert and someone wishes to see the photos I’ve taken of their students on stage wouldn’t it be easier to just hand them a flashy card?

Mandalay Bay SecurityI was walking the streets of Las Vegas with my camera a few years back and a young couple asked me the following question; “Do you have an email address?”. This was 2009, not 1989. If you’re between the ages of 12 and 90 and don’t have at least one email address today you’re more likely a victim of time travel than a contributing member to society. I responded with a “yes”, probably, and the boyfriend asked if I’d take their photo and email it to them. I was more than happy to do that. While it may have seemed like a brash move to ask a complete stranger this question, they picked the right stranger. The girlfriend was very hesitant and almost embarrassed that her boyfriend was even speaking with me. She slowly dragged the conversation to an end as they walked away without a photo or exchange of my questionably-possessed email address. What if I just handed him a photography business card? I bet she would have been happy to have her photo taken by a “professional”. If one has to ask whether or not someone in their early thirties has an email address, they probably don’t know that anyone with $20 can order business cards online that say whatever you can type.

If these cards only make the subject smile briefly then they are more than worth the price I paid for them. While the law is on the photographer’s side, that doesn’t prevent an angry mob from punching the camera into my skull. If the card can quell that a bit and bring perceived professionalism into the practice than I’ve profited from them. Since it has one of my email addresses on it a better, and more realistic, solution is to simply run. If it draws traffic to my site, and through some miracle gets someone to actually pay me for my photography, everyone wins. Unfortunately I ordered them days before signing up for 500px, but here’s what a pile of them artistically spread out on my table look like today…

Cards

So can you offer some advice on how to be a great street photographer?

Thanks for asking, me-from-three-seconds-ago. I think this article is long enough and the techniques warrant an entry to themselves focusing largely on the from-the-hip technique.

A Post Script; Does a building have more right to privacy when it comes to street photography than people?

After leaving Occupy Boston I passed a building in the financial district with an interesting awning. Normally I would just pass it by but I had just purchased a fish-eye lens and was intent on learning how to use it. As I snapped the photo a guy in a suit runs out and tells me I can’t take photos of this building since it’s an “Equity” building. I wasn’t sure whether or not I should take him seriously. He had a suit, but he otherwise looked homeless. Did he just find a suit in the trash, learn the word “equity” and get overly defensive of this building?

I wasn’t sure, but there was a lady smoking on the side of the building who laughed at me. I walked up to her and she explained that he was a security guard here, though she didn’t know of any laws preventing me from taking this photo. I would have normally deleted the photo as it’s otherwise uninteresting, but I’m posting it and awaiting the imminent punishment.

Forbidden Equity Building
Please do not use this as evidence if the homeless guy was right.

2 Comments

Add yours →

  1. Char McCawley 20 Nov 2011 — 1:00 pm

    I found your blog very useful and used it as a reference in my research for university. I couldn’t agree more with everything that you said about ethics in street photography.
    I will be reading more :]

    Like

  2. Thank you for these very helpful information that fade many unanswered questions within me regarding Street photography. Thank you for the great post. Will be visiting you in coming days.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: