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.
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?
Image courtesy The Guardian
Image Courtesy Time Life
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.
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.
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!
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