August 31st, 2007

Ethics of Street Photography





Is it ethical for a photographer to secretly make images of people in public places without their permission? Some people say yes, it’s perfectly all right, because when you’re in public you can’t expect the same privacy you enjoy in your home. Others—equally emphatic—say absolutely not. It’s just wrong and ought not be done.

What about the image above? Can anyone claim their privacy has been violated if he or she is not named and otherwise can’t be identified?

To try to shed some light on this rather shadowy issue, I’ve put below some excerpts from a long web fourum entitled “Street Photography and Ethics” moderated by Paul Stutzman. To view the entire session, click here.

So what do YOU think?

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Todd Frederick , Feb 03, 2002; 11:19 p.m.

I will say this again:

I feel deeply regarding the privacy of other human beings.

I do not support random street photography where people are pictured and posted on forums for the whole world to see.

I truly think there are both ethical and religious issues involved in this. This is, of course, a very debatable issue.

From my perspective, I simply can not take a stranger's photo and publish or post it on a forum. I think this is ethically wrong...no debate!

I once thought I might be able to do this, but I no longer support this kind of photography, unless the subject fully agrees.

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Christopher Condit, Feb 05, 2002; 11:21 a.m.

I must join Todd in taking a hard line on the ethics of privacy invasion. Let's start with the golden rule; ask yourself "How would you feel about people treating you as something worthy of impersonal 'documentation?'". Now personally I hate having strangers take my picture without asking -- I find it invasive and demeaning. By the way, I never refuse if asked.

But ethically speaking, the golden rule doesn't quite cover it, because it is too relativistic. Try this one: "Is it possible that a reasonable person would prefer not to be documented?". It should be clear to reasonably thoughtful people that the answer is Yes. Thus, you are involved in uncivil, selfish, and thoughtless behavior when you *take* pictures of strangers without their permission.

You just have to decide whether or not you want to be a brutish lout for the sake of your Art, or whether you feel obliged to be sensitive to your fellow man.

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Peter Phan, Feb 01, 2002; 02:02 a.m.

It just looks like a fellow that you happen to catch at a moment when he was unfortunate enough to have a particularly awkward expression on his face. As it is (an unflattering image of some unsuspecting fellow, now plastered across the internet for all to gawk at) one might make the argument that it's a bit exploitive.

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