105: In which the Photographer is Conflicted, and Morality is set to Burst its self imposed Bubble.

80s alive and well

So this is one of those photos that caused me to have an attack of conscience. I suddenly felt guilty about taking photos of complete strangers and making them available for anyone to see on the internet. What if they didn’t want their picture taking, what if someone is pictured in a situation they wouldn’t want to be seen in? I dont ask permission to take photos of the people in my pictures, mainly because the moment happens so quickly that there isn’t a chance, but also, the photo wouldn’t be what it is if the subject was aware I was taking it. But a part of me feels that I should be allowed to take photos of whatever I want in a public place, and I try to have a code where I try not to show people in a way that they would find offensive or that mocks them or shows them in a bad situation. So Im conflicted. Im continuing to post photos I think (hope) the subjects wouldn’t mind and would be flattered or amused rather than upset.
Im interested to hear other peoples views on the whole morality of street photography, it been around since photography began, just under different labels, but has the abundance of cameras in todays world taken it to a level beyond what is acceptable or reasonable? Im sure I dont know the answer.


13 thoughts on “105: In which the Photographer is Conflicted, and Morality is set to Burst its self imposed Bubble.

  1. I am new to the world of street photography, having always taken shots of landscapes before I saw the wonderful contrasts found in urban streets. Early on I posted on my photo blog what could only be termed a portrait, of a stranger in an airport, of whom I did not ask permission. I took it down the next day because it felt like such an invasion of his privacy. I looked up the laws pertaining to photographing people in public places and found that in my province it’s permissable. I still, however, felt uncomfortable with that portrait shot. Since then I have looked for photographs in situations where people are less recognizable – walking away from me, in silhouette etc. And I refrain from taking any recognizable shots of children. In today’s world we are all photographed, a lot, by traffic cams, surveillance cameras etc but I think photographers should show some restraint and respect. Having said all that, I don’t always follow my own guidelines to the T – I also exercise personal judgement in what I find acceptable and unacceptable. I agree that in asking permission we then get a more posed and, to me, less interesting shot.

  2. I can understand your dilemma. You do seem to capture people in subtle and interesting ways. However, I do get that for various reasons, some people just don’t want their picture taken. I guess it’s a take it as it comes situation.

  3. Both you and those people are in a public space, you don’t have to ask their permission to take a photo. But if they notice you, and in any way show you that they don’t want to be on a photograph, it’s better to confirm that you’ll delete it and do that right away. Respecting their wish should calm them down in a second.
    Naturally, there are different approaches to this problem. In history of photography we had the age of “decisive moment”, where photographers were more like thieves or hunters. But then this concept was challenged, and the role of photographer changed as well (from an observer to a participant). Photographers like Pasquier reached out and talked with people, Waplington spent a lot of time talking with families he photographed. From popular internet photography, HONY (Humans of New York) tumblr project involves dialogue as well, and it works quite nicely. Maybe it depends on a cultural region as well, but I know I’m too shy to ask random people to pose yet. I’d love to try this approach some day though.

  4. I can identify with your inner conflict, but must say that in 3 years of street photography I’ve only had 1 person yell at me for taking his picture. This guy was sitting on the double yellow line on 16th Street at Valencia in San Francisco – a very busy intersection – at night. Clearly he was off a bit. 🙂

    As Peter Spy said, there is no right to privacy in public places. Even so, your photograph doesn’t depict them doing anything embarrassing or otherwise compromising. I’ve had people ask what I was up to in varying degrees of agitation and, after explaining and talking for a moment, their feathers are smoothed and suspicions allayed and they move on. Smiles and confidence go a long way in these situations.

    I think that the fact that you’re thinking about what you’re doing is proof that your motivation is an artistic one and not one borne of trying to take something from someone just because you can.

  5. I continually have that inner debate, and then I read the laws that allow for such photography and don’t define them as invasion of privacy. But to tell you the truth, that doesn’t help much. So I look at old photos from street photographers and I’m awed as how cool having those little slices of life are, and I remind myself what I’m trying to do is document what’s going on.

    I once took a photo of a young couple in love, kissing in a park. I later saw the woman in handcuffs in the Emergency Room of a hospital. I wondered what had happened, and wished I’d had more of her story.

    That’s the best I can offer, except your work stands out, and it doesn’t exploit or judge, it just documents. That’s all we can do.

  6. What an interesting conversation! I ask these questions of myself as a foreigner taking photos in Japan. I like the non-posed life, as is the feel of street photography. Instead of using my big Nikon, I use my iPhone. On the other hand, I try to make beautiful, respectful photos. I would be very sorry if we did not have interesting photos of life like yours on this post. From your comments,I believe all of you are considerate, aware and trying to make good art photography. This is great photography. I would not be a photographer if it weren’t for the work of Cartier-Bresson. I feel better having read through this conversation. Let’s document the moment, the quickly changing moment.

  7. These are all great points of view! What drew me into doing street photography was seeing some old 1920’s photos of London, of people just going about their business, not staged in any way, and there was something so real and genuine about them, you really got a sense of what might be going on in the life of that person in that moment, and I thought I’d really like to document the present in the same way, so in 100 years from now people will look at them and have that same reaction. And I think that that kind of reaction is impossible to capture with any other form of photography, because as soon as someone realises theres a camera on them, they change.
    Thanks everyone for your comments, its been really interesting reading.

  8. I feel your pain – but see all-of-the-above. I’m only ever aware that I try to balance the male/female ratio…I don’t want anyone thinking I’m a perv…but The Sartorialist seems to get away with it quite well. Great snap…great post.

  9. With all these new laws about personal data (the governments vote them but they hardly ever follow them) and the easiness of the Internet, street photography as we know it and loved it, will never be the same. This moral issue is probably of the ones that grew out of these laws. I do understand the need for privacy, and I really think that the photographer should make his presence clear, when taking a photo, thus warning in a way the parties involved. The only solution that I use myself, is asking to take another shot, after the decisive moment was recorded. If they accept, I know that I have not recorded an “off-limits” moment (for example a couple not married to each other), and I even ask permission to use, but that has to do with the ones with good mood. Apart from a photographer you have to be a psycho analyst as well! 😉
    Keep up the good work!

  10. “there is no right to privacy in public places” ….not so sure about that comment above.
    We all have a right to personal privacy in a public space, but there is no law to prevent someone taking a photograph of people in public spaces. Not to be intrusive or insensitive as to how people might regard a stranger taking their photo is important not only to ensure people are not offended but also to prevent new laws or attitudes taking hold that make street photography harder to accomplish.
    I have been doing street photography for over three decades now & it is never easy but honing your skills to read the street & anticipate potential subjects while improving individual technique is very rewarding but my concern is that in time it could become outlawed, which would not be good.

  11. A tricky situation. I’ve shot quite a bit of street photography and have never been confronted by anyone. Had a few snarky looks every now and then, but I usually just nod or wave, and I smile and greet them somehow. A connection that isn’t through the camera seems to disarm them a bit.

    I’ve been on the other side too. I’ve spotted people taking pics of me on the street, and I’ve just tried to appear as natural as possible. Once I even found a photo of me taken at an event I was photographing too.

    The only time I’ve ever been told to stop taking pictures is at protests, and it’s the police who say it.

  12. A good question, I started as a street photographer and didnt reallt think too much about the morality issue. However as i learn more about this trade and i have been asking people permission more often. As a portrait photographer i want to capture the real them as well, so far all my subjects have been the real them. Ask for permission, experiment and see what happens.

  13. Hi,

    As a budding street Photographer I find your site and the comments on this particular post extremely interesting. It’s put “? marks” in my brain.

    I also thank you for following my photography/lyric essay blog: http://throughharoldslens.com. I hope you enjoy your journey.

    To help you launch your travels, I thought you might enjoy a few “Quick Links” to a few of my favorites, from over 250 posts, on Through Harold’s Lens:

    “Shaken! Not Stirred”(Sweden)

    “Maiden Mild” (Poland

    “Where Spirits Soar” (Chile)

    On behalf of the entire Creative Team at Through Harold’s Lens, my trusty sidekicks, Mr. SLR Nikon, his brother Mr. Pen Pal and myself, we wish you safe travels.


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