This week I wanted to take a look at the ethics of doing street photography. The question has come up twice in the last week. Firstly Grant, a member of the studio facebook group (https://www.facebook.com/groups/iansstudio/) suggested I wrote a blog post on doing street photography. Secondly when I read the following BBC article about the exhibition of image by Shirley Baker at Manchester Art Gallery. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-manchester-40003514
The rights and wrongs of street photography is something that can divide photographers. What I am never going to be able to do in this article is to settle that debate. What I can do is talk about some of the popular for and against views and leave you with some of my own conclusions and practices.
What’s the Law?
Better writers than me have written about this, so I’m not going to try to reinvent the wheel here. One example is this article by Amateur Photographer: http://www.amateurphotographer.co.uk/technique/expert_advice/street-photography-and-the-law-96304
However, what I will say is this – that it is perfectly legal to take photographs of people in public places. What is sometimes not so clear is what constitutes a public place. Churches, shopping malls, National Trust properties and land and even some parks are owned and are thus subject to the rules of the owners. Those rules may effectively prevent you from creating photographs in those places.
Even where it is legal to photograph, you may choose not to. For example, it is perfectly legal to photograph children in public, providing the images aren’t for commercial or illegal use. However, because the intent may be misunderstood, I would strongly advise any photographer not to do so, unless you have first obtained written permission from the child’s parent or legal guardian. That applies to anyone under the age of 18.
A record of the time
One of the strongest arguments for street photography is that it provides a visual record of a time and place. This is what makes the Shirley Baker exhibition so interesting to those of us living in 2017 – it is a window into life in Manchester in the 1960s-1980s. If we as photographers are not recording the world we live in what record of our time will exist for future generations?
You could almost argue that we have a duty to record the world around us for future generations. But if you are using that as your justification for street photography, you need to be giving as much effort and thought to the preservation of those images for future decades and even centuries as you are giving to the creation of the images in the first place.
Invasion of Privacy
A strong argument against street photography is that of ‘invasion of privacy’. The reality is that when in a public place none of us has a right to privacy. However, the European Convention on Human Rights does grant UK citizens a ‘right to respect for private and family life’. This effectively means that even if you are on public land you can’t photograph someone through their window.
So effectively, yes legally, you can photograph anyone who is out in public. But just because it is legal doesn’t mean it is ethically or morally right to do so.
Let me give you an example of what I mean. When I was in my late teens there was a photography exhibition at the local art gallery. It included a number of street photography images. One of those images was a 10ft print of a teenage girl picking her nose. The girl in the photograph was a friend of mine. She had no idea the image had been taken, it was taken in a public place, and I believe the first time she knew of its existence was when she visited the gallery. As you can image she was both embarrassed and upset to see a less than flattering image of herself as a major exhibit in an art gallery. Legally the photographer had done nothing wrong, but I would argue that the distress caused to the subject of the image meant that he/she was definitely in the wrong ethically and morally.
Working it out in practice
First, let me say that I don’t do much street photography in the UK. Most of the street photography I have done has been as part of my travel photography.
Because of what happened with my friend when I was a teenager, obtaining the consent of my subjects is important to me. If language is a barrier, I attempt to obtain permission from my subjects by a simple hand gesture: indicate the camera and then indicate to them while smiling. This almost universal hand action appears to be understood by most cultures and languages.
Of course, the problem of having obtained consent in this way is that often that the subjects are trying to pose for the camera rather than naturally going about their business. To work round this problem, I may use a longer lens and shoot from a distance first, before coming in close, making myself known and asking for permission. If permission is denied when asked, any shots I have previously taken will never be used by me.
When travelling in Egypt many years ago, at a distance I photographed a market trader in Aswan, sitting cross-legged on his stall. It was lovely street shot and we had the image hanging on the wall at home for some years. A couple years later I returned to Aswan and saw the same trader, still sitting on this stall. This time I was able to ask permission to photograph him. He denied that permission. Not only did I not create any new images but I no longer show the original image or have it on display.
One final tip for street photography: in some countries, it is customary to tip or give a small cash amount to anyone you photograph in the street. In Egypt, you will often see your subject hold out his hand and say the words “Baksheesh! Baksheesh”. The word has its origin in the Persian word meaning “to give”.
When doing street photography abroad, I keep my baksheesh money in a pocket separate from any other money I have with me. This means that I am not revealing where the bulk of my money is and there is no risk of having a large amount of money snatched from my hand. Additionally when the baksheesh is pocket is empty, I know that is the end of my photographing people.
I hope that some of the things I’ve mentioned in this blog have been of interest to you, and/or made you think about your own street photography.
If you have opinions, ideas, thoughts or questions on this topic, why not post them in the comment sections below.
All the best,
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