Ethics in Street Photography – A Guest Column

Street photography, rural Alberta style!

Street photography, rural Alberta style!

In our last blog post, Samantha tackled building a code of ethics in photography. In the end, we here at oopoomoo decided that the principle to promote the well-being of the things we photograph was a good guide to keep us on the right track ethically. If we are not promoting the well-being of our subjects then ethically we are wading into dark waters. Samantha compiled an extensive checklist of positive actions we could each take to keep on the ethical path. One of those positive actions was to ask permission before photographing an identifiable person. This statement had a number of photographers up in arms suggesting that to do so would kill the art of street and documentary photography. On the contrary, we think keeping the guiding principle of promote the well-being in mind will easily guide you as to whether you should push the shutter button or not. For example, we recently featured the work of documentary photographer Larry Louie and he always asks permission before photographing identifiable people and his photos are all the more powerful in veracity because he engaged with the people he photographs. In some rare cases not asking permission is OK if it promotes the well-being of the subject. Potential situations where this might apply might be war journalism where the need to document might outweigh the privacy of an individual. Our suggested positive actions were guidelines not commandments for you to blindly follow – we always encourage you to question and think for yourself. We hope our guiding principle of promote the well-being is useful to you in your journeys as an ethical photographer.

©Dave Williamson - An ethically misbehaving photographer?

©Dave Williamson – An ethically misbehaving photographer?

OK, so that’s our perspective. For a slightly different view on the ethics of street photography we present the guest column below by Amruta Mohod of PhotoWhoa. We would love to hear your feedback on this contentious topic in photography. Please note that the opinions and any errors or omissions in the article below are the sole responsibility of the author and PhotoWhoa.

Ethics In Street Photography; The Black, White And The Grey Of It

by Amruta Mohod

Photographer Joel Goodman’s striking photo of a Manchester street on New Year’s Eve was recently dubbed a ‘perfect picture’ with its painting compositions and conformity to the Fibonacci Spiral that the likes of Lenoardo Da Vinci employed while creating masterpieces.

Did Goodman seek permission from any of the subjects?

©Joel Goodman

©Joel Goodman

Image courtesy The Guardian

Or when Alfred Eisenstaedt clicked the iconic picture The Kiss, did he say ‘Hey, is it okay if I snap a picture while you, you know do the deed?’

(Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt/Pix Inc./Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)

(Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt/Pix Inc./Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)

Image Courtesy Time Life

(*note from oopoomoo – this photo is mired in controversy about sexual assault)

Ethically speaking, street photography is the most controversial branch of photography. Since the subject largely consists of people who are mostly shot candid, the question of ethnicity ubiquitously plagues photographers everywhere.

However, note that not every street photograph features a person in the picture or even have to have a street in view.

The idea is to have – as Wikipedia puts it – a human presence.

Another question often asked in connection with street photography is whether or not it should be candid. A lot of times your subject would be aware and even posing for a click. Does that then qualify it to be termed a street photograph?

There are different thoughts on this. While Matt Hart, UK-based street photographer and educator believes in going completely candid so as to not disrupt the natural composition of an image and keep it real, New York street photographer Michael Comeau feels he wouldn’t just startle his subjects if he doesn’t seek permission but might not even get the desired shot.

What’s right and what’s wrong?

Street photography blurs the line between the two, and it’s amply justified.

When it comes to ethics in street photography, every expert has his personal opinion, and swears by the implementation of the same in creating pictures the way they see it.

Like Ansel Adams said “You don’t take a photograph, you make it“, a picture – street or otherwise – says a lot about the photographer too. It’s his perception, thoughts, beliefs and ideologies all seeping to his work, which is why the concept of ethics varies too.

Come to think of it this way, just like ethics in general are extremely subjective, so it is with ethics in street photography. What might be right for one would be horribly wrong for the other and the other way round.

For instance William Klein’s pictures are primarily up close and personal shot with wide angled lenses.

He quotes I photograph what I see in front of me, I move in close to see better and use a wide-angle lens to get as much as possible in the frame”.

He’s one of the legends in the field of street photograph and has given us some rather compelling clicks. A notable attribute in most of his work is that it tunes the viewer in. It’s like the viewer becomes part of the picture rather than being an onlooker.

True to his words, Klein had always gone for it. Clicked when he saw something that held a sense of a story, a palpable sense of identity and relation and overall a surprising yet perplexing perception of something banal. Like his May Day picture of an old lady surrounded by a small but eclectic group of different nationalities.

©William Klein

©William Klein

Image courtesy https://www.artsy.net/artist/william-klein

Echoing the same thought, is ace street photographer Thomas Leuthard who not only has made his mark with his street portraiture in a short time but is also eager to share his vast wealth of street photography related tips and tricks.

In his free e-book titled Street Faces he gives insights into the approach. He emphasizes on the right approach and how it can make or break your capture.

He also says that the average person doesn’t interest him, he’s always looking for that one face that stands out of the crowd, based on any parameter. But it has to be something captivating, a face that speaks without opening the mouth.

©Thomas Leuthard

©Thomas Leuthard

Image courtesy Street Faces

Most might call his approach unethical and even illegal but he sticks to it when it comes to street portraiture.

I never look them into their eyes, never ever (only through the viewfinder). I point my camera to the persons face before he turns his head. I press the button halfway down to pre-focus. When the person turns around, I press the button down and make 3-4 frames in a series. After 3-4 shots I turn around and walk away. Don’t talk, don’t look, I don’t do anything else…

And even legendary Garry Winogrand who is renowned for his artistic perception of the cacophony of American life, was famous for not seeking permission before a click.

To this date, the prolific Winogrand remains an inspiration for a multitude of photographers skewing towards street photography in particular, despite his evident dislike for the term ‘street photography’. But while he could have gotten away with his ‘don’t hesitate, just click’ attitude in the patriarchal 20th century, today his beliefs are not just more likely to be reproachful and angering but it can also pose a threat to a person’s privacy.

Changing Technology and Ethics in Street Photography

There are tons of websites that feature random ‘street photographs’ of people caught unawares. And given how Smartphones have made a photographer out of each one of us, it takes only a few minutes to click, upload and taint a person’s reputation.

This is the area where ethics in street photography need to be discussed closely. The question of consent and the question of intention both determine whether an image is fit to be called a candid and honest street photograph that the public would smile and say thank you for one or that would get you sued or at least beaten up.

Street photographers (majority of them) agree that what they are doing is fine because what they’ve set out to do is create art.

But cut to today’s time when people are not just more wary of getting a picture clicked without their consent (for all the justified reasons) but they are also constantly captured and monitored through surveillance cameras.

So how do you find the middle ground in such contradictions?

Are you clicking that beautiful red-haired lady with a squealing newborn in one arm to show the realities of motherhood or do you intend to put it up in a dark space on the internet for the faceless chorus to go MILF?

The onus of clicking candid is always on the photographer, ethically that is. The legal viewpoint might differ depending on which country you are in.

Consent is an important factor, but when you are going candid and the subject has no idea they’re getting clicked is that ethical or unethical?

And when you are clicking a larger group, do you take each person’s consent?

And there’s also the question of whether taking consent still qualifies it to be called street photography or does it then become a portrait.

Some photographers consider them to be two different areas while some consider portraiture to be a sub-sect of street photography

Weighing in on the ethics debate, some photographers believe that educating the general public more on the requirements of street photography would help. Like if they knew they’d consent automatically like they do in case of CCTV cameras.

But that’s a theoretical concept. Come to think of it logically, this might make them more resistant.

There’s no way to use the idea of surveillance camera to justify street photography, it’s absurd and rather does more harm. Since there is a question of safety involved in surveillance captures, people don’t object to it. The same cannot be said for street photography.

But to some degree, there is a need for that; for a decent understanding of and exposure to street photography. And also the backstage work, requirements, and consequences in general.

Street photography is a form of creating art, actually more like recognizing art. Like Duane Michals puts it:

Photography is essentially an act of recognition by street photographers, not an act of invention. Photographers might respond to an old man’s face, or an Arbus freak, or the way light hits a building—and then they move on. Whereas in all the other art forms, take William Blake, everything that came to that paper never existed before. It’s the idea of alchemy, of making something from nothing.

What could make a street photographer click is subjective, it’s what they see traces of art in. And this is why they opine differently than their peers on the ethics of clicking street photos.

Although this area of photography is affected a lot by the changing times, laws and perceptions, it is not going to be banned or so we hope. Should there be a type of explicit or implicit mandates governing street photography is still hard to say. Like art, photography cannot be contained.

You cannot direct a photographer to click a certain way, it’s something natural and to a degree innate too.

But then should you disrespect or worse derogate an unknown person in the name of art?

Some general no-nos of street photography

Here is an attempt to round up some of the general what-not-to-do(s) in street photography from an ethical point of view. Some of these points might not resonate with some street photographers, well to each his own, but from a general point of view it’s better to not do any of these:

Take pictures of the subject in a compromising position – There’s only so much you can do in the name of art. When it comes to street photography, which is already polarizing, it is best to not take pictures of your subject which they would definitely not consent to.

This is especially important if you are clicking candid of kids. Even when done with the right intention, it would somewhere evoke the wrong response. Therefore, the correct thing to do is to not do it.

It’s better to ask consent of parents when you click a child – You don’t want to have an angry father at your throat or a scared mother calling the cops. If the parent is nearby, ask them permission to shoot a picture of their kid. Most parents don’t mind if you ask them the correct way.

If they ask you to delete, you delete – So someone not just caught you clicking them candid, they marched over to you and demanded you delete their picture, which you absolutely should.

Not only that, if you are going to follow the approach that William Klein or Bruce Gilden took – that of getting right in the face while shooting – then the chances of this happening is all the more. People don’t like their personal spaces tampered with, while some would give you a quizzical ‘what the hell bro’ look, some might actually create a ruckus.

So even after tackling the situation with tact, if they ask you to delete the picture, you have to absolutely do it.

Don’t interrupt their moment – If you think this is irrelevant when you’re shooting candid then you’re wrong. Just because a person isn’t directly aware of you shooting them, doesn’t mean he is completely in the dark. Take for instance what Leuthard does, he waits for an eye contact before clicking candid.

It’s rude and distasteful to interrupt and spoil someone’s moment just because you feel you’d get an amazing shot from that. Some subjects might make the shot better when they know a camera is on them but most would close up.

When we say ethics we mean morals that are accepted by a large group of people. Street photographers the world over believe that there is nothing unethical in their work but there’s no set consensus when it comes to ethics in street photography.

Click a picture with the wrong intention – There was some mention of intentions earlier, the talk of ethics become more prominent in situations where the intention had always been to defame or demean.

And that’s not art.

The question of ‘decency’ and consent make up for most of the ethics debate in street photography, but the only thing that can be said is if it feels right in your heart, click it!

Author Bio

Amruta , PhotoWhoa Team
I love writing about photography and keep it as simple as possible. When not writing about photography I can be seen watching TV and petting all the possible dogs in the society. (My husband dosen’t let me own one) and looking for new places to eat and review them. I also love to connect with new people across the globe hence you can always find me online on Skype. You can find me on Twitter here @amruta_mohod

About the Author

I am a Canadian landscape and outdoor photographer who loves long hikes in the woods, yummy food, hairy dogs, good company and a good guitar jam.

6 Comments

  1. Michael Hill
    February 25, 2016

    Hi

    Let me open by saying I am a strong proponent of photographing ethically. I was one of the people who questioned the initial piece and I noted in my comment that “if by always requiring permission of anyone in the photo had we just eliminated most of what is called street photography?” I think that Amruta Mohod’s very sensible general guidelines as outlined would ensure ethical photography 99% of the time and that is about as good as it can possibly get. A strict rule that you must always have everyone’s permission at all times would most certainly have resulted in foregoing many of the finest photographs ever taken by the likes of Cartier-Bresson, Lartigue, Robert Frank, Friedlander just to name a few.

    Can you imagine Cartier-Bresson calling out to the man who had just jumped the puddle … “excuse me, may I take your photo please?” “Thank you … would you mind going back and jumping again so that I can get the shot?”

    Given that Cartier-Bresson was on the other side of a fence it seems unlikely to me that he was able to track the fellow down and get his permission to publish what is one of the most famous and recognizable photos of all time.

    http://www.nouvellesimages.com/Derriere-la-gare-Saint-Lazare–Paris–1932_Henri-CARTIER-BRESSON_art~110.001097.00_id~affiches_mode~zoom

    Reply
  2. Dan Baumbach
    February 25, 2016

    As a former street photographer, I found this very interesting. I did a lot of street photography in NYC in my late teens and early 20s. I’ve thought of doing it more recently and I felt that I couldn’t just snap photos of people and move on like I did when I was young. It felt very rude and disrespectful.

    I now live in Colorado. I haven’t lived in New York City in about 40 years. New York is very crowded and anonymous. I wonder how I would feel about it if I lived in NY now.

    Reply
  3. Bob Fisher
    March 9, 2016

    It seems like our FB discussion stirred some strong feelings. 🙂

    What Amruta outlines as guidelines are, really, little different from what I discussed on your earlier FB post. The only significant thing is on not taking pictures of people in compromising positions. I’m fine with doing that as long as they are compromising themselves. If it’s an accident, or happenstance, then no. I’m in complete agreement on the idea of deleting if asked. And we agree where children are concerned.

    There’s a difference, too, between a true candid and what Leuthard, or Gilden, or Cohen do. That is catching someone unawares and looking for the reaction. It’s a candid reaction, but not a truly candid photo.

    I come back to the question I asked on FB. Is there really a desire to dismiss some of the most highly regarded photography of the 20th century because it doesn’t fit into ‘your’ ethical box. I emphasise your so as to make it the general vs. specific to you and Samantha.

    I’ll end with this. Walker Evans’ subway series is regarded as one of the seminal collections in photography, captured by one of the most respected photographers. Look into how he took those images.

    Reply
    • Samantha Chrysanthou
      March 10, 2016

      Dismiss is a strong word and not at all what we are advocating. I’ll say it again (and again and again…). YES. Always question. Be respectful, but do think for yourself and develop and then trust your own values. This goes for those who are celebrated by our culture such as the photographers you mention and the most unknown, beginner photographer first uploading a picture to facebook. It is when we hold some people exempt because of their talent or power that we can get into trouble. Times where different when many of these images were taken. Cultural attitudes toward privacy and women have changed. We should evaluate all art both within its historical context AND within what it means in contemporary culture.

      And take an art history class. You’ll find that a lot of what is taken for granted by the public as ‘sacred’ is deeply questioned and examined in a good course.

    • Darwin Wiggett
      March 10, 2016

      Mr. Fisher,

      I see nowhere in our blog posts or in our FB responses that we ever dismissed any images of the past. We are talking about ethics in the here and now and like Sam says attitudes change. Because women did not have the right to vote in the past is our historic behaviour permission for present day behaviour? And along these lines why did you remove your photo of the woman at Niagara Falls in the FB feed ‘compromising herself’ – are you dismissing your own work from the past or have your ethics evolved since then?

  4. Bob Fisher
    March 17, 2016

    I didn’t remove that picture, Darwin. If it is gone, then something else has happened. In fact, I just checked and it’s still there. Have another look.

    Your analogy is a bit flawed,I believe. Yes, women once did not have the right to vote. And blacks were once considered as worth 3/5 of a white man, hence that abominable discrimination. Today, we understand and accept that those kinds of thoughts and actions were wrong. And not only are they wrong today, they were wrong then. We condemn those who prevented women from voting and who required blacks to use different doors, or sit at the back of the bus. Society changes, but when it does, we acknowledge that the past was wrong. Given that, it is difficult to buy in to the idea that past street photography was fine even though it may violate someone’s standards of today. That is the very definition of hypocrisy. If one has an ethical guideline, then it should be immutable. If I feel that surreptitiously taking pictures of people is wrong today, then I feel it was always wrong. It should not be based on the toing and froing of general societal beliefs. Ethics, as I’ve noted before, are personal.

    Now, it is, as you rightly note, possible for one’s ethical position to change over time. But when that ethical position does change, the beliefs that were previously held are invalidated. It’s not possible, if one has a strong ethical position on a matter, to say ‘well, it was OK because that’s what I believed then.’ Rather the position is ‘I have changed my view and what I believed before was wrong.’ Nothing to do with changing societal mores. Personal. It is, therefore, difficult to understand how an ethical position can be taken that, for example, ‘no one should be phototraphed without their permission’ but then say that some such photos from the past are acceptable.

    An ethical position may, in part, be based on current societal mores, but it does not necessarily change *because* society changes. If it is considered ethically wrong today, it was wrong in the past as well. Ethics, in this context, are personal, not societal.

    Samantha, how do you know whether I have, or have not, studied art history? And I’m not suggesting holding anyone exempt by virtue of their status, or celebrity. If I were, I wouldn’t be questioning this area as strongly as I am. Darwin is a far more well-known, much more ‘followed’ photographer than me. If I were deferring to his celebrity, this discussion wouldn’t be happening. Perhaps, in this case, you’d prefer that his status gave you both a pass. 🙂

    Reply

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