John Palcewski (forioscribe) wrote,
John Palcewski

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 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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Ellis Vener, Feb 01, 2002; 08:07 p.m.

The huge difference between the work produced by photographers like Diane Arbus, Garry Winogrand, Robert Frank, early Joel Meyerwitz, and others ofthe street photography school is that all of those photographers always had a big idea inside them that was burning to get out. You can feel their passion in their work. Virtually all of the so called "street' or candid photography I see here and else is just some shallow and un thought out voyeurism.

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bill dewberry, Jan 31, 2002; 10:13 p.m.

If this were you, would you want this image on the net, and elsewhere ? Make your decision after answering that question.

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Barry Schmetter, Jan 31, 2002; 11:34 p.m.

I believe photographers should bear witness to what they see and that exploitation is a deliberate act, not something that occurs by chance. Edward Weston photographed a dead body he found in the desert. Was it exploitation? I don't think so. Not because he was "Edward Weston", but because I believe he simply photographed what he found. How about Mary Ellen Mark or the countless other photographers whose subjects we can hardly bear to look at, yet we can't turn away. Photograph what you're compelled to photograph.

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Gerry Siegel (Honolulu) , Jan 31, 2002; 11:39 p.m.

A photo of an old man looking lost amongst a sea of shoppers and tourists. What are you exploiting? If you mean you invaded this man's privacy, that is another question,but it hardly seems likely that this face in the crowd will be damaged or embarassed by showing it here in the context you did. It is photo verite/ How about the photo of the lurching drunkard that appeared recently by a serious photographer? Or the photos of the couples in cafes sipping their lattes. If we tread softly, good, but do we eliminate all documents about our times. I'd hate to go there. Now if you expressly shoot photos of a sect that you know shuns their portrait, that is a whole other story. Frankly, I was surprised at all the ethical alarms over this shot. That makes me callous?, don't think so. You will know when you have crossed the line. And its not all that fine I think. The Enquirer etc has made that line very bold. GS

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John Kantor, Feb 01, 2002; 12:08 a.m.

Capitalism is based on exploitation, and "art" of all kinds goes hand in hand with it. Our conception of (secular) aesthetics developed simultaneously with capitalism as a way to divorce art from its prior religious and social contexts by "elevating" it to a universal truth. It's no accident that that maneuver also redefines art qua art as product (rather than as icon or fetish).

Your question only comes up with anonymous photojournalism because it overlaps the modern categories we have set up: personalized art (the portrait), anonymous art (the nude, landscape, etc.), and what we consider public and newsworthy ("human-interest" photojournalism).

As far as I'm concerned, as long as you didn't throw a rock at him to get a reaction, you're not exploiting any more than is culturally appropriate for our society.

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Robert Kennedy, Feb 01, 2002; 01:42 a.m.

Exploitation would be if you took his picture and then:

1) Sold the image for a ton of cash and didn't get his permission/cut him in. 2) Degraded the subject (like made a joke about him using that photo). 3) Misrepresented the subject.

In the Weston case, it isn't exploitation. It is a "found" image and arguably a journalistic image.

Now if you want exploitation, go for Witkin. The guy literally robbed the grave to make photos and took advantage of poverty and corruption in Mexico to make "art".

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Mark Crame, Feb 01, 2002; 05:26 a.m.

Ethics? I don't see any problem at all. I will photograph anything, anyone, or anywhere without a second thought. (This has resulted in a couple of 'gun' incidents though, lol.) Now if he was up to no good with the Malaysian prostitute a bit lower down, then perhaps it may be a bit of an invasion of privacy, but depending on the laws in your country, legality would be the only real issue, and that is more a question of taste than ethics. Ethics? They get in the way of reality. Ethics = Censorship.

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Ed Whitney, Feb 01, 2002; 08:00 a.m.

Paul, just my opinion, but I have never thought it was acceptable to take a picture of anyone I didn't have the balls to ask permission of first.

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Richard Mansell, Feb 01, 2002; 08:55 a.m.

Apart from the wheelchair issue (which is not apparent from the picture, and raises exploitation/"freak show" issues {I hate to use that term, but it conveys the meaning here}), I see no ethical issue whatsoever.

People in public have a limited right to privacy, if any at all. That is why people don't have sex, defecate, urinate etc in public (very often). If someone is in public, they should not expect privacy (privacy in the home is entirely different.) They may expect it though, so if someone indicates no photography, or you are aware of a cultural sensitivity (e.g., when traveling), then don't take.

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Susej Natas, Feb 01, 2002; 11:31 a.m.

Street photography is only interesting is some "decisive moment" is captured, such as in the work of HCB or (especially) Gary Winogrand. None of the street pictures I see on ever capture such moments and, IMO, fall into the category of snapshots.

As far as exploitive goes, well, that's a subjective thing. But if you're going to be a successful photographer, caring about other people's feelings is going to have to come second to getting the shot no matter what.

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youoohay netu, Feb 01, 2002; 03:09 p.m.

There is nothing unethical about street photography. As it was pointed out before, we should not expect privacy while being in a public place. As far as exploiting goes, I think this term is being very often misused. If I FORCE somebody to pose for me and then make a profit that would be exploiting. If look at people through the viewfinder and record what I see on film this is not exploiting. Maybe bad pictures, but nothing more. One other point – sometime ago I saw this scene, a huge guy with white hair wearing this hairy white sweater with two huge white hairy dogs sitting outside a coffee shop. All 3 of them slouching and pretty much taking up all the space on the street. So, naturally, I pulled out my camera, but my girlfriend’s conscience got the better of her. She walked up and asked the guy a permission to take a few pictures. You probably guessed what happened next. He set up, adjusted his hair, his dogs, his facial expression, etc. The moment was lost.

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Robert Goldstein, Feb 01, 2002; 03:26 p.m.

Ask yourself if you would be offended by someone taking your picture without your permission. If the answer is "yes," then your doing the same to another person constitutes unethical behaviour. If "no," then it does not. If this sounds like moral relativism, that's because it is. There is no clear overarching moral principle to serve as a guide here, and this fact is reflected in the varying opinions expressed in this discussion. The issue of exploitation only pertains to commercial use of the image, IMO. Invasion of privacy only pertains to things done in private places (which includes public bathrooms). If people don't want to be photographed, then they should, by all means, stay out of public places.

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Michael Simon, Feb 01, 2002; 03:56 p.m.

Like the man himself said:

"As photojournalists we supply information to a world that is overwhelmed with preoccupations and full of people who need the company of images....We pass judgement on what we see, and this involves an enormous responsibility." -Henri Cartier-Bresson

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youoohay netu, Feb 01, 2002; 04:03 p.m.

It just occurred to me: we probably will never see another Cartier-Bresson or Winogrand because of this false political correctness, our obsession with privacy, law suits, and just generally being angrier that 25 years ago. Sad.

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Michael Gaston, Feb 01, 2002; 09:13 p.m.

Does anyone else think the world has become way to sensitive? Obviously, this man was not asked permission. Street photography is not about people grinning for the camera. It’s about capturing real life.

As someone pointed out, you have no privacy in public. I don’t even understand where the notion that one has the right to privacy in a public place came from.

One persons boring as hell is another’s fascinating as hell. Either point is equally valid.

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curtis brooks, Feb 01, 2002; 10:41 p.m.

Only YOU can truly say if a photo you took is exploitive. What was your intent? If you go out looking to shoot obese amputees with a third nipple to fill a niche in the market, that certainly is exploitation. If that special someone just happens to walk into your frame, maybe it isn't. I don't photograph people as a general rule, not for any ethical reason but because I have at this time no interest to.

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Aaron Lam, Feb 01, 2002; 10:56 p.m.

Sometimes, street photography can just capture the moment and culture of the country. It is by not "explotive" until you use someone else's pain for your own profit (finacial or otherwise).

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Roger Krueger , Feb 04, 2002; 09:59 p.m.

What people want and what they have a legal right to are different things. No, he might not want his picture online. Does he have a legal right to prevent it? No. Did O.J. want to be on the cover of Newsweek? Do you think the Vietnamese guy captured at the moment of execution wanted his last millisecond on earth published worldwide? Probably not. You're left with two dillemas - one, will they ever find out? The old guy, almost certainly not. If he doesn't know, it drasticaly reduces the "wrong.' Secondly, how do you feel about it? If you're going to lose sleep over it, don't. But if it doesn't bother you, and he won't find out, I think you can safely ignore the protestations of others.

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Robert Jones, Feb 05, 2002; 06:35 a.m.

I think that a shot is only exploitive if some do-gooder tries to milk it to make a political point in order to line the pockets of some so-called "charity" or "human rights" group. An example of this are the scores of third-world children with wet calf eyes (always taken from the condescending angle from above) that "Christian" charities use to get bucks. ("Marissa is five and has no family, is malnourished, and has never seen a book nor drank potable water. If you [yes, you, you greedy, cold-hearted, bastard!] adopted her for just $1.24 per week, why she'd be riding to school in a Bentley and eating a seven-course meal at the Ritz-Carlton.) Perhaps this is why so many viewers got such a cathartic thrill of seeing the Ethiopians roast Sally Sthruthers on the spit in the "South Park" episode "Starvin' Marvin," in which Trey Parker and Matt Stone make mockery of those who exploit third worlders in order to feel better about themselves.

As for my likes in street photography, I think Lisette Model, Weegee, Walker Evans and Robert Frank best personify that; there is nothing "forced" about their work, nor pretentious. I don't think there is anything unethical about it, so long as one is interested in a candid view of life, rather than indoctrination. When Walker Evans -- though himself on the left -- was photographing Alabama sharecroppers, he maintained their dignity by treating his subjects as human beings, and resented the New Dealers who sought to get political mileage from his work. This doesn't fit in with political or social agendas the way Dorothea Lange's essential dishonest "icons of pity" portraiture of Okies did, and it is thus Lange's photos that are (erroneously) used in history texts about the Depression.

In street photography, genuiness is achieved by keeping the photographer invisible. It should capture the sense of "a slice of life," even if that life is in a wheelchair. I prefer photography that treats people as individuals, not "representations."

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Richard Mansell, Feb 05, 2002; 12:03 p.m.

"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."

There are many activities for which the answer to the above question is "yes". However, you can't go through life wondering if you should do something because some mythical reasonable man riding the Clapham omnibus might find it objectionable. The point is a good one though - living in a free society balances the freedom to do what one wants against the freedom of others to not be harmed by your actions.

This is something I have thought about quite a lot; i am not entirely insensitive to the pro-privacy school. I think that the second point above, how much are you prepared to do for your Art (act like a brutish lout, yes, wielding my n80 and grunting), is more interesting. The resolution that I have arrived at is yes, I am prepared to possibly annoy some people by invading their privacy (without their knowledge) if I am legally entitled to do so and the shot is worth it. I think that this post was moved to the archived thread is that people who shoot street photography should be aware of these considerations and make their own decision.

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Ron L, Feb 05, 2002; 12:19 p.m.

"Brutish Lout"? "Invasion of privacy"? Hello?? Anyone home? We are talking about people outside in public areas. Last time I checked there is no such thing as personal privacy out in the street. If some individuals think there is something wrong with it, they must be projecting their own insecurities and hangups. I could care less if somebody takes my picture. Imagine if somebody took an embarrassing or awkward picture of me and plastered it all over the Internet? Oh my God! What would I do. I'll tell you what I'd do. Nothing. I'd go about my life the same way I had before. I have just a couple of things that are just a bit more important than that picture would be. And from the last post by Spirer, it seems that most people in the street would agree with me. I guess the rest of you will need to find somebody else to "save" from us louts.

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Will Perlis , Feb 05, 2002; 02:04 p.m.

"Is it possible that a reasonable person would prefer not to be documented?". ... the answer is Yes. Thus, you are involved in uncivil, selfish, and thoughtless behavior when you *take* pictures of strangers without their permission."

Is there *any* activity, photography included, that some "reasonable" person doesn't object to or would "prefer" done differently? You've got a recipe for complete paralysis, not for ethical behaviour.

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Jeff Spirer , Feb 05, 2002; 02:25 p.m.

I don't particularly like being photographed. On the other hand, I am photographed at least one hundred times a day. I'm photographed at almost every stop light. I'm photographed at the bank. I'm photographed on the way into most buildings, and often inside. I'm photographed in the subway station. I'm probably photographed from random streetlamps.

I have no control over the usage of those photographs other than the usual legal stuff. I would much prefer to be photographed by a photographer than all those security and police cameras. As someone says above, once you are in public, you are in public.

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Marco Vipitano, Feb 06, 2002; 11:08 a.m.

I have been reading this thread for the past couple days, and one thing struck me: Most of the heated debate is not over whether a particular shot was *taken* by a photographer or not, but whether it was *published*. Does this then become a question of ethics (behaviour among citizens within society) or morals (personal standards of behaviour)? I believe it falls within the realm of the latter - that the decision to print or not is a matter of conscience, not legality, or ethics. In an open society, as Dr. Karl Popper defines a liberal democracy, the public may indeed fall prey to public documentation by photographers or news-reporters. But this is because of the greater benefit to society of unfettered freedom of expression. In Aeropagetica, John Stuart Mill makes a clear case that information can only be protected against censorship if we have a free and open marketplace of ideas. He railed against the form of censorship known as 'prior restraint,' in which the Crown first had to grant its legal imprimatur to published matter. This creates an atmosphere which bottles up both public discourse and creative impulse; today, it would be called 'chilling effect.'

There are many respondents within this thread who most grievously pore over such seemingly 'ethical' tribulations as 'invasion of privacy,' 'propriety' and 'treatment of others.' However, I think we can all agree that in a democracy as we know it, the interests of liberty are best served by keeping the debate open (as we are indeed doing here), and not by being Anthony Comstocks or the Hayes Office. I think even Spinoza would agree with that. All the rest is a matter of personal morality, which is also a freedom of choice protected on behalf of citizens in a free and open society. It would likewise be a form of censorship to *force* a photographer to release a photograph that runs counter to the dictates of his conscience, because it would turn the public's need to know into a *right* to invade the private journals or photographic library of one of their fellows. What happens in the public marketplace thus becomes private, based upon the actions taken by the photorgapher out of free will. It is thus proper that this free will be protected, so that choice - not compulsion - is the ethical imperative.

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Merrily McCarthy, May 14, 2003; 03:52 a.m.

There exist a realm of photographers that take images of people and things. There are photographers that are technically correct and take brilliant images of people and things. Then there are photographers that capture "images without words" that are art as unspoken thought....these are artists and most of us like to aim this high, but we have not taken enough images to understand the difference between taking fancy pictures and taking images that "speak". I think your man in the wheelchair had something to say, but your image did not capture the unwhispered words, the artistically presented social statement.

If you wait and ask everyone for permission when you see a special shot, well, it goes away or the subjects move and change, so your idea or your perception gets lost. Some of the best and most artistic presentations are those that you see and you take. You can always ask later or toss out the shot!

It always seems odd to me that people make such a big deal out of present images when life is so short. Making a fuss over a picture, when a picture is merely a document of a moment in time. Must we request of the living permission to record a second of their life, when we ask nothing and no one, when we dig up old bones, photograph them and parade them on the covers of magazines and newsprint, such as we have done with ancient artifacts and bones of famous pharoahs or Indian Cheifs. Does any other think to get permission from the dead or their ancestors? The point is, we don't think we are exploiting them, nor need to request permission, yet if your mother or father was buried in a cemetery you would be grossly offended if someone dug up your relatives and made pronouncements about them and the way they lived. Bones and artifacts of ancient burial sites never recieve the same considerations that we living humans give to our shortly deceased relatives. The difference is, one type of image taking is for the sake of history and exploration and the other is desecration and claudestine intentions (maybe!), but the only people who are deciding and making a moral discrepancy are those of us who are living. Somehow this does not seem quite fair. If you can't ask or are unable to, maybe we should not be digging up and photographing dead artifacts and bones and the skulls.

It doesn't matter if it is of the living or the dead...the photographer gives his picture the life.

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Dan Melomedman, Sep 19, 2005; 09:01 p.m.

Photography is exploitative by its nature, and anyone/anything in public is subject to being photographed. As Diane Arbus said, it's one of the risks of being in public. I had homeless ask me to take their picture on several occasions. On one occasion, I asked permission and it was granted. He seemed to want to be photographed.

There are no rules. As Lee Friedlander said, "it's a generous medium." Just make interesting images, what/whoever the subject is doesn't matter.

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There’s much more to be said about this volatile subject:

Ethics Of The Street Photographer (Are there any?), here.

On Street Photography Ethics, here.

Terry Lane, LiveWire. Be careful who you photograph—you could be assaulted. Or at least be ordered to hand over $5, here.

More Ethics in Photography, here.

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